Forgive me if I don’t opt for a slightly shite attempt at a joke about how off-putting the idea of a solo album by ‘the drummer’ might seem. For some reason, a number of reviewers in the ‘big’ publications this month have opted for this approach, before pointing out that ‘Familial’ is actually worth your time. Did anyone, with even a vague understanding of what Phil does in Radiohead, along with his contributions to the recent 7 Worlds Collide album, really think this was going to be a weak record? Honestly? Add in the fact that it’s being released by the now freakishly unimpeachable Bella Union and there is no reason to be even slightly suspicious. Oh, and it’s really, really good.
You’ll likely know ‘By Some Miracle’ by now, what with it being the free download track on his website and I would imagine you’ve been as thoroughly charmed by its whispery, folksy ways as I was. The whole album is of a similar calibre, Selway’s voice actually proving to be rather affecting at times, such as on one of the best tracks, ‘A Simple Life’. A lovely soundscape builds slowly but oh-so-very meticulously to a pleading middle-eight which reveals a vocal style somewhere between a subdued Neil Finn and hints of a wistful Erlend Øye.
‘All Eyes On You’ is one of those tracks that reviewing clichés like ‘ethereal’ and ‘spectral’ were made for. See what I did there? I deployed both clichés, leaving you with a clear sense of what the song might sound like, whilst still maintaining credibility for not just deploying both clichés without self-awareness. Clever that. The plucked guitar sound is a little unsettling and, at only two and a half minutes in length, it doesn’t stick around long enough to reassure you. But that, ultimately, is what makes this record so good. None of the songs outstay their welcome and many leave you wanting more.
Subtle but affecting strings serve their purpose, particularly on ‘The Ties That Bind Us’, which sounds like a vintage folk classic from the late sixties, and the sparse drum arrangements that do feature on the record are actually played by the really rather splendid Glenn Kotche from Wilco. A busman’s holiday this is not, nor does it feel like some half-hearted solo project, farted out between releases by the day job. This feels like a true labour of love and a piece of work of which Selway can be justifiably proud. ‘Familial’ doesn’t need to be sold off the back of a name or a brand, it’s good enough to stand alone and its presence on the Bella Union roster will do it no end of good.
Having said all of this, the acute ear for what will sound delicately beautiful is demonstrated throughout the record and the majestic sculpting of some of these songs belies Selway’s presence in one of the most sonically adventurous bands of a generation. ‘Falling’ was birthed for headphone listeners everywhere and will usher forth that special warm feeling you get when something hits you right in the middle of the skull. The odd track is a little too slight to stick, ‘Broken Promises’ being the prime example, but none are anything less than really rather lovely and, as quaint and frankly crap as that phrase sounds, I mean it as a compliment.
The drone-like start to ‘Don’t Look Down’, replete with abstract piano meanderings, marks another stunning headphone moment and ensures that there’s no dip in quality as the end looms into sight. One of the most hushed vocals on the record, it just about manages to stay atop the wash of sound that follows which in some way seems to be the musical equivalent of one of those deliciously melancholic days when the noise of the whistling wind and swirling rain coalesce into something oddly comforting.
The album closes with ‘The Witching Hour’ which, along with ‘The Ties That Bind Us’, will be familiar to those who purchased the aforementioned 7 Worlds Collide set and it sounds no less magnificent now than it did then, even if the repeated vocal refrain keeps reminding me of something, just out of reach. Indeed, there are a couple of moments on ‘Familial’ which seem eerily familiar. Perhaps it’s simply a case of them being such good songs they sound like tracks you should already know; either way, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.
I’m still unconvinced about the cover art, but every other aspect of this record has won me over wholeheartedly. At just under thirty three minutes in length it will dash past you at first and you will need to spend some time with it, ideally with headphones, to truly fall under its spell. But please do and don’t let yourself fall into the trap of looking for any Radiohead comparisons. It’s a thankless task. Just enjoy what is there because… (deep breath) … everything is in its right place.
Familial is released by Bella Union on August 30th.