In many ways, Trembling Bells may be the most conventional project Alex Neilson has been involved with as a musician. Compared to his work with his former bands Scatter and Directing Hand, and his collaborations with musical outsiders Richard Youngs and Jandek, the formation of a four-piece group focused on recreating the golden era of British psychedelia and folk-rock would appear to be at least sailing in the direction of the mainstream. Except that the ostensibly foursquare set-up of vocals, guitars, and drums is always decentered by the addition of other instrumental textures (most notably horns played in a variety of historical styles), the use of defiantly archaic lyrics (stretching beyond conventional folk styles to incorporate Elizabethan madrigals), and a constant war between the classical and the vernacular. Despite what much postmodern theory has told us about the blurring of boundaries between high art and its others, they still rub against each other in interesting and agonistic ways.
Neilson has steered his band skillfully and productively from behind his drum kit and songwriter’s pen, meshing together folk, early music, rock, jazz, and brass band music to produce three increasingly strong albums since 2009. Last year’s Abandoned Love (a PopMatters Slipped Disc) got the formula just about right, with vocalist Lavinia Blackwall summoning memories of a long list of classic folk singers (Maddy Prior, Jacqui McShee, Grace Slick, Sandy Denny, Shirley Collins, Joan Baez) and all four instrumentalists bringing to mind the heady crunch of British folk-rolk pioneers Fairport Convention, Pentangle, and Steeleye Span. Add to that a fair dollop of eccentricity along the lines of Glaswegian folk psychedelicists the Incredible String Band and a bit of country music, and you had a group that sounded like no one else recording in 2010, Midlake included. Indeed, if one was to look for a contemporary comparison, one might consider the eccentric eclecticism of Josephine Foster (with whom Neilson has previously worked), a singer-songwriter doing fascinating things with folk styles and delivering her lyrics in a manner not unlike Blackwall’s.
We should probably we careful about reading too much development into the material on album number three, because some of it appears to date back to the time of their debut (“Goathland”, for example, was in the band’s live repertoire from the start). Even so, it is still tempting to say that The Constant Pageant is the strongest collection Trembling Bells have yet put out. The band sound assertive and in complete control of their strange aesthetic; they’ve also produced some mightily catchy and haunting songs. In fact, they haunt from the off thanks to the sweetly coruscating “Just As The Rainbow”, in which an overdriven fuzz guitar plays a slow, droning, “Eastern” riff that wouldn’t be out of place on a Velvet Underground album (more Sixties references!) before reluctantly making way for the high, clear, and, yes, ethereal vocal to make its way to the fore. “All My Favourite Mistakes” establishes that the heavy, distorted guitar is going to be one of the defining sounds of the album but does so, this time, via a frenetic rocker that wears its Sixties garage rock costume with pride before embellishing with horns that seem to have Stax rather than the Stooges on their minds.
The spirit of Sandy Denny hangs over many of the tracks, but one is most reminded of solo Sandy rather than her work with Fairport or Fotheringay. “Colour of Night” and “Torn Between Loves” would not sound out of place on Denny’s Like An Old-Fashioned Waltz or Rendezvous. The comparison never completely works, however. Denny’s clear voice was often at its most affecting when it yielded to a warm, seductive, grainier aspect. Blackwell appears to be developing this skill (it’s more in evidence here than on previous recordings) but her voice is still colder, more distant, classical rather than grainy. It’s a remarkable instrument in its own right, but lacks an element of danger. To a certain extent, that’s fine because danger is provided by Mike Hastings’s Hendrix-inspired guitar, present throughout the album but particularly striking on “Where Do I Go From You?” and “Otley Rock Oracle”.
“Otley Rock Oracle” and “Goathland” provide the second half of the album with a definite psychogeographical feel, referencing locations in Neilson’s native Yorkshire. The former recounts a strange tale of a sighting of a seven-headed dog in West Yorkshire in a rocked-up narrative which skillfully utilizes storytelling and musical modes drawn from British folk tradition, albeit heavily psychedelicized by electric guitar effects. “Goathland” has a more obviously North-Eastern sonority with its mournful brass bolstering a tale of wasted days in watering holes around Robin Hood’s Bay. These reminiscences are given a Dylan Thomas-like poetry–“When time held me green in infancy’s bliss / I rode like the sea with chains on my wrists”– and Blackwall does them proud as she falls back from a high vocal peak to settle in a lower, more “chained down” register.
If she is not always convincing at doing danger, Blackwall is quite impressive at doing sad. To this end, she is aided by a variety of brass instruments, which provide pathos aplenty to songs like “New Year’s Eve’s The Loneliest Night of the Year”. This song, which closes the album, shows as well as any how good Trembling Bells are at doing what they do. The song was first released as a Christmas single at the end of last year, with vocals by Bonnie Prince Billy. Arguably the best moment was where Blackwall joined in for the harmony part on the line “It had to be winter…”. This remains the most moving part on the new, BPB-less version; indeed, as Neilson enters on harmony vocals and drums, we reach the point where Trembling Bells come closest to nailing the alchemy that can be found in Sandy Denny’s late ballads. It actually sounds like a song Sandy could have sung.
The sadness that attends this insight has nothing to do with concerns about mimicry or originality, only the tragedy that we will never hear Denny sing a new song. It is a gift indeed that Trembling Bells can summon such realizations, tinged though they may be with melancholy. More importantly, the mixture of styles and traditions that each member brings to this project marks the collective as different, complex, and constantly intriguing. Long live the pageant.