Tag Archives: Noah and The Whale

Noah and the Whale ‘Heart of Nowhere’ – Review

15 May
“In five years time I might not know you / In five years time we may not speak.” This was Noah and the Whale at the climax of their only hit song, coincidently released five years ago this summer. Charlie Fink (the singer/songwriter of the band) may well have been considering his position in the fickle pop industry, because Noah and the Whale were never a band people expected to last. Everything about them was very much of the moment – their tunes were youthful, sparkling and belonged to a very specific scene. But even though ‘Five Years Time’ is the song they’re destined to be remembered for, Noah and his gang have created a pretty interesting oeuvre since. Two top ten albums on from that debut they’ve grown into an accomplished, seasoned rock act. They may not have experienced the commercial or critical success of their scene mates (Laura Marling and Mumford and Sons) but they’ve done pretty well for themselves nonetheless.
Their previous records have explored different links in the folk-rock chain; from the melancholy acoustics of ‘First Days of Spring’ to the Springstein-esque bombast of ‘Last Night on Earth’. One thing that binds them all together is their preoccupation with quite particular shades of nostalgia. ‘Heart of Nowhere‘ is no different; recording for the new album started after band leader Charlie Fink found out an old friend was getting married and with this came the realisation that he was getting older, and not necessarily wiser. Nostalgia trickles down to the colour tinted photo and layout of the cover to the ‘purple rain’ guitar pedals used throughout the album. It’s a different kind of longing to before though. On the still brilliant ‘First Days of Spring’ Fink was a remorseful character bemoaning the breakdown of a relationship. On ‘Last Night on Earth’ he was casting his eye fondly on the freedom and escapism of his youth. His outlook on ‘Heart of Nowhere’ is more bittersweet; he doesn’t have a particularly pessimistic worldview, but he’s certainly a confused young man weighing up his place in the world.
Despite a change in tone and outlook, the band essentially follow the same formula as last time around. ‘Heart of Nowhere is therefore the first Noah and the Whale record to feel slightly redundant and repetitive. To put it simply, these are ten upbeat songs about putting he past behind you. There is nothing remotely essential that you get from this album that you won’t have already found on ‘Last Night on Earth’. More damagingly, there is nothing that comes close to matching the musical highlights of their back catalogue. ‘There Will Come a Time’ is a weak first single compared to ‘Blue Skies’ or ‘L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N’. The hook (treated to U2 stadium sized reverb) is unworthy and the chorus is basically a melodic extension of the unmemorable verse.
The album starts on an equally underwhelming note. ‘Intro’ is as pointless and bland as its name suggests and the title track, featuring Anna Calvi, is trite and uninteresting (it seems to set up the story for short-film of the same name as featured on the bonus dvd). Nothing on here stinks but  the album never sets your heart racing. Even the more interesting and original songs could pass for cover versions of long-forgotten songs from 1980’s NOW compilations.
Which is not to say that it’s without strengths. Noah and the Whale are as endearingly melodic and enthusiastic as you remember. This is an album from the heart for people who think that subtlety is overrated. ‘Still After All These Years’ features the same ‘Lisa‘ who popped up on the last album, and it’s a catchy little soft-rock number that recalls a laid-back Tom Petty. ‘Silver and Gold’ is built around a convincing Neil Young metaphor that would lose some of its magic if I were to elaborate on it here. Moments like this make ‘Heart of Nowhere’ a worthwhile listen. Perhaps the most memorable part of the album comes when Fink sings “I can spend a lifetime searching for someone to blame / and don’t look back, don’t feel ashamed.” It‘s a good hook, but you can’t help feeling that he should take a little more of his own advice. ‘Heart of nowhere’ is just about good enough, but another album of bitter-sweet nostalgia would be overkill.
Going back to ‘Five Years Time; it ended with the observation that “In Five years time you might just prove me wrong.” The genius of that song was that it was optimistic and realistic. It was youthful and innocent but completely self aware. It lived in the moment where the songs on the new album reflect on a moment passed. ‘Heart of Nowhere’ is likeable but it doesn’t feel necessary or innovative. It’s fitting to think back to the criticism Noah and the Whale received in 2008 – their debut ‘Peaceful the World Lays Me Down’ was almost unbearably twee, but it was much better than many of those reviews would have had you believe. The fact that they’re still here, still making records, still a part of the conversation, feels in itself like a small vindication. It feels like Noah and the Whale have proved doubters wrong. And so they aren’t offering any predictions about where they’ll be in five years from now – but you’d be a fool to bet against them.

Noah and the Whale ‘Last Night on Earth’ – Review

11 Mar

Bob Dylan made the ultimate break up album with ‘Blood on the Tracks’, but for his next album he made a radical change, releasing ‘Desire’, a collection of strange stories set to exotic and ambitious music. He worked on the lyrics with a collaborator for the first time and for most of the album he managed to sing about anything but his divorce. I mention this as ‘Desire’ set the benchmark for the post break up album, album.  Since then it’s been fairly common for bands to follow-up their ‘Blood on the Tracks’ with something completely unrelated to broken hearts and that is exactly what Noah and the Whale have done with ‘Last Night on Earth’.

Like ‘Desire’, ‘Last Night on Earth’ ditches the introspective honesty for songs that tell stories; stories about disillusioned slags, hopeful teenagers and lots of people on the run. Perhaps most tellingly there is a sense of starting over, forgetting about the past and remembering that life goes on (as one of the song titles reminds us). Bruce Springstein and Tom Petty have obviously been huge influences on the lyrical style of the album, and musically as well Noah and the Whale borrow some of that wide eyed American ambition. Gospel singers add colour to many of these songs and instrumentally there is a lot going on, which is a turn around from the quiet subtilty of ‘First Days of Spring’, their last album.

And what an album that was, one of my favourites of 2009. It’s obvious from fairly early on that ‘Last Night on Earth’ can’t match that record simply because it’s too calculated and objectively distant. The stories are interesting but they are not heart tugging; this time Fink plays the role of journalist rather than diarist. The music hits all the right spots but I get the sense that It’s been done before and it’s been done better. It doesn’t help that the production feels very cheep; the band have played mainly acoustically in the past and the change to synths and drum machines clearly doesn’t sound entirely like a comfortable fit.

Still, turn a blind eye to some trite lyrics here and some cheesy production there and it’s incredibly easy to  like this album because the songs are so damn catchy and uplifting. ‘L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N’ has alright been A-listed on Radio 1 and it’s not hard to see why, listening to it makes me think summer has come months early. ‘Waiting For My Chance to Come’, ‘Life is Life’ and ‘Tonight Could be the Night’ are some more cheery numbers that remind me of ‘Tea for the Tillerman’ era Cat Stevens. The best songs however are the ones that stick more closely to what Noah and the Whale do best; downbeat melancholy. Not that these songs are miserable in the same was that ‘First Day’s of Spring’s darker songs were but ‘Old Joy’ and ‘Wild Thing’ have a knowing sadness that reminds me of that album. But even these songs are tinged with hope and overall it’s hard to think of a more upbeat album than ‘Last Night on Earth’, which I never thought I’d say about a band who only last year were the dreariest group at any festival.

Following an album as well received as ‘First Days of Spring’ was always going to be tricky; it would have been very easy for them to make a copy cat album, or easier still to return to the nu-folk of their debut, especially as Mumford and Sons continue to have amazing (and rather head scratching) success. Along with Mystery Jets, The Horrors and Arctic Monkeys, Noah and the Whale have proven to be one of the most unpredictable and consistently imaginative UK acts of the last decade. I have no idea where they will go next but you can be fairly certain that it will be somewhere new and exciting.


Noah and The Whale ‘First Days of Spring’ – Review

4 Sep

Noah and The Whale’s debut album (‘peaceful the world lays me down’) may not have set anyone’s world on fire but it had it’s moments. Take for example ‘5 Years Time,’ a song it was impossible to escape last summer. This one hit aside the album had no real songs of note, which is why I was happily surprised to find that their new record, ‘First days of Spring’, is fantastic.

‘First Days of Spring’ is a surprisingly old fashioned album by an old fashioned band. It is a concept album about a break up (no wait, come back!), with the singer going through all the stages associated with heartbreak. The album begins at the end of the story, with the singer stating ‘my life is starting over…like a cut down tree, I will rise again’. After this we go back to the start to hear about the misery, the sadness and the songs are suitably mellow and emotional. We hear of him trying to forget the girl (‘This is the last song that I write while still in love with you’) before ultimately moving on in the album’s highlight ‘Blue Skies’ then finally accepting that his door is ‘always open’ on the album closer. In between there are two over the top instrumentals instrumentals and more songs about regret than you can shake a stick at.

If any of this sounds cliched that’s because it is; yet it works throughout and somehow manages to seem consistantly fresh and intresting. The harmonies are rich and claer, the melodies bitter sweet and acomplished and the lyrics are constantly rewarding. He declares at the beggining that this is an album ‘for anyone with a broken heart’ which would go to say most of us, and because of this universal theme the album feels personal and touching. Names are never given and a thin layer of fog surrounds the songs so that it is easy to input your own life story throughout. The instrumentation, as on their debut, is always unique and different (such as the church bells on one instrumental and numerous strange sounds throughout), it is largely acoustic but can turn orchestral or electric when it is called for. Though the theme of the record has been used to death in pop music, it works so well here because it is accompanied by heartfelt vocals and unique instrumentaion. It is just perfectly produced.

‘First Day’s of Spring’ is a wondefully ambitious, yet old fashioned album that works precisly because it is so well made, and despite the fact it shouldn’t. I can’t think of a more sincere and heartmelting British record this year, and it may well transform Noah and The Whale into one of Britain’s premier bands.