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Album review: Gill Sandell “Songs Of Our Years”

April 20, 2016

An understated gem from Gill Sandell whose quiet introspection is tempered with an abiding optimism; it’s a rare blend and something to be treasured.

Click here to read the whole review at Folk Radio UK

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Cover of Gill Sandell - Songs Of Our YearsSongs Of Our Years is the new, self-released solo album from Gill Sandell, the writing for which took place at various creative retreats in Wales and London during 2015, followed by a series of rehearsals with the contributing musicians before finally heading into Livingston Studios last winter for an intensive week of recording the twelve songs pretty much live. This meticulous preparation has paid dividends with an album which reflects the compositional intricacy which is such a hallmark of Gill’s music, and adds that particular edge which live performances bring. The overall sound of the album is full and richly detailed, while its underlying theme of loss, both personal and shared, is beautifully summed up in Gill’s own lyric (from ‘Cotton On The Kite’): these songs are about “The ebb and flow of letting go”, something I’m sure many of us can empathise with.

The album opens with the gorgeous ‘Walk On Low’, building from its sparse beginnings of Gill’s voice over a fingerstyle guitar before some keening strings by Jo Silverston (cello) and Anna Jenkins (violin) enter. With some occasional, distant guitar powerchord punctuation (Ted Barnes) and empathic harmony vocals, over repeated listens, has become one of my favourite songs of the collection.

One of the pleasures of Gill’s lyrics is the way in which she incorporates elements of the natural world into her stories; it’s a technique which she employs to great effect and ‘Silva’ is a fine example. Underpinned by the restrained rhythm section of Ali Friend (double bass) and Sebastian Hankins (drums), a rippling piano and Gill’s pristine flute interweave with Anna and Jo’s strings to create a serene yet uplifting song.

‘Hammer On Wood’, by contrast, builds on the sound that characterised Gill’s previous solo recordings with an edge which suits both the lyric and the arrangement, with Ali’s slidey bass and Sebastian’s scattergun drums introducing a foot-tapping syncopated groove. Gill’s fiery singing counterpoints nicely with the smooth-sounding ensemble voices of the Livingston Choir at the bridge, before a tight minor key turnaround finds the middle section stepping forward like an attacking band of rebel warriors to demand answers: “Oh believers! Who will lead your army now?”. The final part of the arrangement is simpler in structure but no less powerful for that; this is one of the album’s highlights, not least for its controlled power and performance.

At the core of ‘My Heart Sat Down’ is a beautifully observed lyric and its own description of a “twisted waltz” is entirely apposite here. The song’s structure is full of unexpected changes: the exceptionally tight riffing of the horn section – Paul Jordanous (trumpet) and Tom White (trombone) – is especially ear-catching but, for me, it’s the sweet wordless harmonies interspersed through the refrains which are the real icing on the musical cake.

The album’s theme of loss is very much to the forefront in the lyrics for ‘The Other Side Of Green’: expressing grief at the loss of a loved one and exploring memories without wallowing in nostalgia, its major key structure underlines a positive message about celebrating the good things that happened. With a gentle horn arrangement over the restrained shuffle of Sebastian’s drums and elegant strings that would grace any tea dance, it’s an invitation to dance your blues away that’s hard to refuse.

‘What To Weep Is’ has all the makings of a huge power ballad, which may come as something of a surprise to anyone familiar with Gill’s canon, but it’s an enticing idea and I can certainly picture this full band arrangement making for a massive finale in a big venue. It works not least because of its combination of mournful lyrics and a major key structure built around a hypnotic keyboard riff and some deft trumpet fills and is another personal favourite of mine.

Permeated with a distinctly bluesy tinge, the atmospheric ‘Become Of Us’ calls to mind the edgy, live feel of The Sickle Swing EP; it’s a sound which I personally like a lot. Jo and Anna’s hovering strings add a chill air of foreboding, but the song’s real strength is in the way all the instruments work together to create a powerfully moody arrangement for this subtle yet strong song.

The musically more uptempo ‘Cotton On The Kite’ again spotlights the interplay between the musicians with some intricate guitar parts by Gill and Ted, and a flowing string arrangement by Jo and Anna, all underpinned by billowing drums and a muted bass. However, it’s the vocal parts which really shine: Gill gives what may be her best performance on the album, backed by some lush harmonies. It’s an achingly beautiful song perfectly encapsulating the album’s theme of loss in its last line, “You brought the twinkle to the night”. A definite highlight.

Over a shimmering, intricate string arrangement and arpeggiated piano, the rise-and-fall chord sequence of ‘Fruits Of The Season’ evokes mental images of deserted shorelines swathed in sea mists while a deep and slow bass line resonates through the still air in this introspective, almost ambient soundscape which sets the mood for ‘Tulips’. The album’s lead single and one of its highlights, it showcases Gill’s strengths as both a lyricist and a songwriter. The blooming of the flowers of the title is an apt metaphor for recovery from loss and the optimistic message is matched by the uptempo arrangement with pizzicato strings adding some delicate timbres, flowing and weaving around the long, slow trumpet part.

The last two songs, although quite distinct, sit together so well that I keep expecting the end of the penultimate ‘Mosaic Cabin’ to segue into the closing ‘The Fading Hours’. The instrumental arrangement of ‘Mosaic Cabin’ – particularly the interplay between the strings and the trumpet – provides a gentle, if slightly bittersweet wind-down. It’s an arrangement which is as much about the spaces between as the notes themselves with some exemplary playing from Ali on bowed double bass and makes an ideal introduction for the small hours vibe of ‘The Fading Hours’. With a lyric comprising just one line, this is a song where the textures and nuances of the music are crucial. Taken at an easy pace, flecked with brushed snares, subterranean bass and impressionistic guitars, it’s almost the musical equivalent of a watercolour painting; the combination of its key changes and the broad brushstrokes of the choir makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck every time and it’s an exquisite end to the album.

Songs Of Our Years is an understated gem of an album whose quiet introspection is tempered with an abiding optimism; it’s a rare blend and something to be treasured. Her attention to detail marks Gill Sandell out as one of the best singer/songwriters on the contemporary folk scene and the contributing musicians bring out all the nuance and subtlety of the material with performances and arrangements that are always compelling. Don’t let this one pass you by.

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Originally posted at Folk Radio UK (20 April 2016)

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