The UK’s Americana scene is clearly alive and kicking.
Sussex based Porchlight Smoker – and isn’t that a great name? – release their third album Water Into Sand in late January. Since their eponymous debut in 2008, multi-instrumentalists Fred Gregory, Scott Smith, Steve Bell and Scott Warman have blended elements of jug band, blues and Celtic influences with their own 21st century take on roots, a recipe that allows them to deliver everything from music hall to prairie-folk without the joins showing. Over that period they’ve garnered considerable national airplay and caught the ear of the scene’s patriarch, Whispering Bob.
Mostly originals, the songs on Water Into Sand occupy their own small space in time, both a timely reminder of the strength of traditional music whilst offering up several pointers for its future direction. That’s not an easy combination to manage over eleven songs, but from the first notes of the harmonica on opener Mary Mary, to the distinctly Harrison-esque closer I Don’t Mind, the broad church of Americana is well represented and anchors brave attempts at inventive arrangements and creativity.
There are three outstanding numbers. Maria Kennedy errs on the Celtic side, a regretful lovers lament with a lovely mid-tempo melody and sympathetic backing vocals. The backing vocals are a strongpoint throughout and none more so than on A Day In Mid July, a disturbing epistolary from a killer son to his parents. The lyric makes no apology for the lives he took and the matter-of-fact honesty is accompanied by haunting harmonica and subtle backing vocals. The third of the trio is Instead, a morality tale that asks the listener whether they’d pass by someone in times of trouble over a lilting prairie tune complete with lap steel.
Elsewhere, Cleaner’s Rag brings Jug Band jollity to an instrumental (though due to the highlight on the banjo melody and the title, Formby’s Cleaning Windows kept popping uninvited into my mind – I think it’s just me). Man In A Boat’s backing vocals introduce a barbershop feel, which is repeated in the later Waiting For A Train, a Country-Blues boxcar-jumping story.
The eclectic feel of the album, its walking bass lines, affectionate nods to bluegrass, the up-tempo stompers and introspective, lyric-driven tunes, find a natural closer in I Don’t Mind, a swinging blast of Travelling Wilbury’s era Harrison that could have been an outtake from their Vol.1 album. A critic called Porchlight Smoker’s second album ‘perfectly flawed’ – I know what they mean. It sounds like they’ve recorded as a band (I may be wrong) rather than lay each track individually. The result is an authentic Americana album that sits neatly in your collection even whilst looking to wider horizons.