BEST OF 2011: 7. The Leisure Society – Into The Murky Water

Norman Blake, Beth Orton, Paul McCartney, Gruff Rhys and Joni Mitchell. All artists who possess voices that can improve my day in an instant, tunnel straight to my emotions and give me the oh-so-pleasurable chills. There are many great voices in modern music but not that many which offer true aural relief. After living with ‘Into The Murky Water’ for some months now, I’m tempted to add Nick Hemming to that list.

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Sat amongst the beautiful surrounds of Bristol Cathedral for the Laura Marling concert in October, the support act were a stripped down version of The Leisure Society. There was something about having the opportunity to focus in on the intricate melodies and frankly gorgeous vocals at the heart of the band’s songs which elevated this album from excellent to stunning. The cacophonous confluence at the end of the title track, which opens proceedings, is euphoric. While the band certainly have the odd folksy tune, this is orchestrated indie pop, the likes of which deserves a mention in the same breath as a certain Scott Walker. The frenetic pace of some of these songs as they come charging in certainly evoke memories, musical if not vocal, of the more jovial moments on Walkers ‘Scott’ series.

Swooning strings adorn the showpiece numbers such as ‘You Could Keep Me Talking’ and ‘Dust On The Dancefloor’, whilst ‘Our Hearts Burn Like Damp Matches’ is an exercise in restraint and comes close to capturing the magic of that October night. ‘The Hungry Years’ concludes with strings so pronounced they sound almost like vocals and this moment perhaps best captures why this album won’t be for everyone. Glorious, unashamed bombast hardly dominates the charts or end of year lists.

I Shall Forever Remain An Amateur’, written shortly after Hemming packed in the day job he was still doing when he was nominated for an Ivor Novello award, suggests that he’ll never really feel like he can stop trying to prove himself. That desire to improve, to evolve and to outdo is often a fine creative influence in music and there’s no lack of ambition here. The musicians who surround him are also worthy of comment, not least man of many instruments, Christian Hardy, who shines on the live stage just as much as his influence does on record.

In an age where Prefab Sprout have faded from view and great Divine Comedy albums are a thing of the past, The Leisure Society do not blend in with the crowd and the word ‘twee’ is often casually tossed around to describe them. If you like melodies, affecting singing and music which leaps out of the speakers at you then I’d forget the snobs and get ‘Into The Murky Water’. As it were.

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The Leisure Society have contributed a song to the wonderful ‘For Folk’s Sake – It’s Christmas 2011’ entitled ‘Christmas Mistakes’. It is as good as anything on this album and, although you’ve missed the physical CDs, you can buy it as part of a download of the whole album for only a fiver. All profits go to charity, so you’ll struggle to find a reason not to, I’d think. Listen (and then purchase) here. The compilation has been put together by the wonderful people over at the For Folk’s Sake blog and also features tracks from Caitlin Rose, Kathryn Williams and Darren Hayman amongst many others.

BEST OF 2011: 8. Jonathan Wilson – Gentle Spirit

Warm, fuzzy and unashamedly long, this gloriously languid debut solo outing puffs into view seemingly all the way from the late Sixties, with little interest in breaking especially new ground. Wilson has learnt his craft impeccably, having previously played for Elvis Costello, Jenny Lewis and Jackson Browne amongst others, and ‘Gentle Spirit’ serves to unleash his own voice, which turns out to be a slightly stoned whisper. Recorded sporadically over a long period of time, and very audibly unhurried, the title and pace of the album suggest that we could all do with taking stock once in a while, hazy guitar lines lulling the listener into a state of serene bliss.

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Can We Really Party Today?‘ aches beautifully over almost seven minutes, gently sashaying through the verses, before shifting down several gears for the sombre chorus. While the lyrics may seem a little platitudinous at times – “When it’s all said and done, we are just dust on the horizon” from ‘Natural Rhapsody’ – on occasion a little simplicity and sincerity is all we need. That said, elsewhere on the album Wilson explores more fully the notion of taking some time to absorb what’s going on around us in an age of non-stop news. Think back to this summer and remember just how much happened in such a short space of time. That’s when I reached for ‘Gentle Spirit’ and that’s when it worked.

As musician for hire and producer in demand, Wilson also knows a thing or two about getting perfect sound, have professed that he envisages this as a double album designed for vinyl. Having worked on the album in his own recently constructed studio, it was all just so: “I recorded everything to analogue tape which I’ve always done; it’s not something I’m trying to do as a boutique kind of hip thing. Analogue simply captures things better and it takes the edges off. It creates a beauty much like film.”

With many long songs requiring the listener’s attention and no desire to crank the volume to supposedly stand out, Wilson observes on album closer ‘Valley Of The Silver Moon’ that he and his music are out of step with current trends. And it’s that very desire to stand out which ensured the position of ‘Gentle Spirit’ in this list. This is not diluted pastiche; everything here is gorgeously sung and this woozy, gently uplifting collection of songs is pretty close to perfect.