Friday, August 13, 2010

Stornoway: Beachcomber's Windowsill

Beachcomber's Windowsill
Rating: 3.0/5.0
Label: 4AD

Beachcomber's Windowsill is an album with a minor identity crisis. The debut release from British band Stornoway adheres mostly to the type of folk-pop being practiced by scores of indie bands that seem to be multiplying like Gremlins, relying on a focused, narrow approach that usually serves the album well. It's when the band moves into less traditional territory that the album falters, creating the impression of a band that can't quite decide which side of the fence to settle on and isn't yet adept enough to straddle it. To no surprise, this lack of focus occasionally makes Beachcomber's Windowsill stuttering, clumsy and a little bit tentative, but there are enough great songs here to partially offset some of its shortcomings.

Stornoway reportedly takes its name from a town in Scotland no one on this side of the Atlantic has heard of, and they've already received some critical attention for their first single, "Zorbing." Named after that idiot's pursuit of rolling down hills in a giant transparent plastic ball - for added fun, cram several people into the ball - it opens the album and establishes the template for many of the songs that follow: gently swaying vocals, controlled background harmonies, a pastoral guitar/bass/drum foundation, well-timed accents like trumpet and violin and a general fixation with the past and various things meteorological. A sense of daydreaming and contentment defines the song; "The storm has broken/ Heaven's open," Brian Briggs sings. Such contentment is often in short supply on Beachcomber's Windowsill, though; "Fuel Up" starts with the image of a young child in the backseat and ends with that child much older, stumbling through his hometown, "Drunk and...sad for the old times;" "On the Rocks" is bookended by cold Februarys and rainy Decembers; "The End of the Movie" utilizes a simple violin line and understated backing vocals to create what might be the album's simplest and saddest song.

Comparisons to Belle and Sebastian are probably inevitable; the horns on both "Zorbing" and closer "Long-Distance Lullaby" as well the vocals of "Boats and Trains" sound indebted to that band, but these similarities are far less egregious than the detours Stornoway take on other songs. "I Saw You Blink" and "Here Comes the Blackout...!" are both hindered by superfluous keyboards that sound like they ripped straight from the '80s; the kinda-droned vocals on "The Coldharbour Road" don't fit in well with the album's usually upfront singing; the grinding guitars of "Watching Birds" provide a jolt to the album but also feel misplaced compared to the album's primarily folksy mindset. Sometimes even that approach veers off course as well: "We Are the Battery Human" is either a total lark or the most earnestly humorless group sing-along this side of A Mighty Wind. Either way, it's dead weight and among the album's slightest tracks.

The common complaint that there's a masterpiece EP lurking somewhere once all the fat is trimmed applies to Beachcomber's Windowsill. Its best songs are filled with descriptive, unshakable imagery - some hard-luck schmuck staggering home under city streetlights and, conversely, someone tumbling carefree across the earth in a giant orb - even if some songs beg for different arrangements. It might be about time for a moratorium on indie bands singing about summers, beaches and bygone days, but Stornoway does enough here to warrant consideration as among that cluttered scene's more promising newcomers.

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