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Album review: Moss & Jones “Amateur Astronomy”

June 18, 2015

Cover of "Amateur Astronomy" by Moss & JonesMerseyside-based multi-instrumentalist duo Moss & Jones waste no time in following up their debut single ‘Ella Brown’ with Amateur Astronomy, their first album and a consolidation of their unique sound. Influenced, but never overwhelmed, by a wide range of music from traditional folk via mediaeval music to contemporary folk with a tip of the hat to the spirit of 1990s rave culture, Ruth (Moss) and Marc (Jones) show a healthy disregard for musical boundaries in pursuit of their artistic and creative ideals. The result is an iconoclastic, highly individual yet engaging and listenable collection of songs which will instantly find its way into your head and heart.

The first track ‘Shepherds’ Delight (It’s Not Time To Go To Bed)’ spotlights their eclecticism and their collective ear for both a memorable melody and intelligent arrangement. A softly-strummed ukelele dances coyly with a recorder behind Ruth’s distinctive soprano in a lyric which celebrates the joys of summer and the simple pleasures of life. Joined by Marc’s mellow bass voice on the chorus and adding layers of strings and a glockenspiel, the song glows like paper lanterns in the gathering dusk as it builds towards an unexpected but very effective dropout on the coda. A definite highlight of the album, it would, I think, make a good choice for the next single.

It’s followed by ‘(There’s No Such Thing As) Wandering Stars’, a short a capella with a lyric inspired by a verse from the Epistle of Jude in the New Testament roughly translated into Latin. The effect is highly atmospheric, both Marc and Ruth have multitracked their voices to create an almost choral effect and it’s here that the influence of mediaeval music on the duo is perhaps most obvious. That said, the coda is in English, a reassurance that the fire and brimstone of the original verse isn’t something that should be taken literally.

‘I See The Moon’ is an 18th century nursery rhyme which, like many traditional songs, has travelled the world and there’s a nice symmetry in Ruth and Marc returning it to its original Lancashire roots in this enchanting and simple reworking.

Although underpinned by the traditional melody of ‘Greensleeves’, Ruth and Marc’s reworking of it into ‘Millbrook’ grounds it in a more contemporary setting while keeping its 16th century courtly feel. Samples of a passing ice cream van in the depths of winter bookend a slow waltz of syncopated piano which allows Ruth’s astonishing vocal range to take the spotlight. From an almost operatic soprano to billowing multitracked harmonies overlaying a short, spoken verse, it’s a stunning performance and an immaculate arrangement. Lyrically, it’s a celebration of childhoods lost and family bonds remade years later. Despite Ruth’s enduring uncertainty about that ice cream van – “I’m not sure what it was selling, but it probably wasn’t ice cream” – this is a joyous song and another highlight of the album.

The melody of ‘Ella Brown’ had been in Ruth’s mind for a couple of years before the song’s distinctive major/minor key modulations came together. As they explain on their blog, “It is about love, loss, and learning from both those things”. Musically it covers a lot of ground, including an unaccompanied vocal section, pizzicato strings and mournful melodica, but its arrangement never feels cluttered and it’s easy to see why Ruth and Marc chose it as the lead single.

Written by Marc, the album’s title track ‘Amateur Astronomy’ is, at first listen, simply about going out stargazing but there’s a subtlety about the writing which suggests there may be a deeper level, about finding love for the first time. A quiet, fingerstyle acoustic guitar is joined by piano and strings with Ruth’s chorus harmonies sitting well in the mix. In part reminiscent of 1960s psych-folk, there’s a cinematic feel to the arrangement, as befits the sense of wonder felt when pondering the vastness of the star-flecked, inky darkness of a spring night.

The album’s longest track, ‘Stars and Moon and Me and You, Love’, builds from a simple repeated percussion beat, over which a ukelele and recorder pick out a melodic rhythm, to a largely instrumental first section, with Ruth and Marc’s wordless vocals setting the scene for the main lyric. Written about the heartache of the separation of mother and child, it’s an introspective piece with some sweet autoharp adding to the reflective mood. The influence of mediaeval music is never far away, but there are occasionally moments which – to my ears, anyway! – are vaguely reminiscent of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, specifically the instrumental ‘Oh Well (Part 2)’

Ruth had had the lyrics for the chorus of the closing ‘Frosty Nights (When I Was Your Age)’ in her head for a long time before the tune came to her and this allows the verse and arrangement the space to stretch out. It’s sung as an a capella duet with some lovely counterpoint singing with some distinctly jazzy phrasing by Ruth.

All in all, Amateur Astronomy is a highly accomplished debut album which gives a comprehensive overview of the very diverse range of music and styles that Moss & Jones cover and yet which remains unified and coherent. For me, what makes the music so special, so unique, is its evocation of those too-short, golden years of childhood, when the world is a place of mystery and wonder, a time when learning is fun and fascinating, before some of life’s harsher realities kick down the doors and do their damnedest to extinguish the best in people.

But Amateur Astronomy is not faux retro-nostalgic, bland corporate mediocrity – neither does it wish to be and that alone is enough to place it head and shoulders above its would-be competition. Amateur Astronomy is the sound of the resilience of humanity, of all that is precious about our everyday lives which nevertheless knows full well that, although the world is too often a cruel and uncaring place, there is still respite to be found in making music and letting truth and beauty grow and bloom in their own time. If any of that means anything to you, then you should seek out the light in the darkness that shines so brightly throughout the eight songs on this album – and if not, then probably you’re either not human or your ears have fallen off.

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Cross-posted at Liverpool Acoustic (09 August 2015)

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Amateur Astronomy will be released on 28 June 2015; if you’re in Liverpool, there’s a launch party for it at The Ethical Glass (starts 1pm, free admission) where you should be able to buy a copy of the limited edition CD. For further details, keep an eye on Moss & Jones’ website, Facebook and/or Twitter pages. And don’t forget that their 3-song single ‘Ella Brown’ is still available as a name-your-price download from their Bandcamp page!

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