Review: Dry The River – Shallow Bed

So what is folk? Many have debated the issue, and on the basis of their debut long player, Dry The River don’t know either, but they do have a clearer handle on what pop and rock are.

Their usual modus operandi is to build from a sparse, scratchy acoustic beginning, piling layer upon layer until the chorus hits you square in the jaw. Which is why the first track, Animal Skins comes at you from the blind side, bursting straight into life with a lolloping 7/8 rhythm. The shortest song on the album, it seems more like a signpost to a future album than an overture to this.

From New Ceremony onwards the familiar pattern is established. The studio has smoothed out some of the rougher elements of their live sound, particularly the vocals, and only over the last couple of songs (Lion’s Den and Family) does the band untether itself the way it does on stage.

There is some accomplished song craft on show, with a heavy tendency towards Biblical imagery and references to shipping forecasts, astrolabes and algebra, though occasionally slipping into the more prosaic (“Death is a force, not a man on a horse” anyone?). Flourishes of violin, brass and keyboards embellish the sound in the right places, only occasionally threatening to overpower, as in the coda to History Book.

Songs such as Chambers And The Valves (for my money the best chorus on the album) and Shaker Hymns display a nagging insistence redolent of The Acorn, while the gentler yet more expansive Demons suggest Low jamming with Fleet Foxes. With Demis Roussos on lead vocals. Yes that’s right, though in his younger, earthier Aphrodite’s Child incarnation. No Abigail’s Party for these lads.

Weights And Measures is perhaps the perfect microcosm of the band’s sound, and their finest four minutes. A tremulous, uncertain opening, gradually builds in strength, like playing Jenga backwards. By the time of the towering chorus, we’re in full flight, yet there is still room for little subtleties such as the shifts in rhythm that raise it above the formulaic. Clattering to a close with the Arthurian imagery of “there ain’t no sword in our lake”, it embodies the spirit of the band and should have festival crowds bouncing around merrily in the summer.

They’re still not folk, though. Yes there are close harmonies, but the Beach Boys had them and nobody calls them folk. Think of them as noisy pop and you won’t go far wrong.

Simon Sadler