Every week we guide you through the biggest albums, to help you decide what you should be streaming. This week: Slowdive offshoot fires shoots for the moon, and Manchester folk via California…
Steve Clarke is about as far from a household name as it’s possible to get, but he’s been around the block at least a dozen times. Moving into middle-age, it looked like he’d have to make do with the life of a jobbing musician and backing vocalist, twenty feet from stardom as the saying goes.
His new musical project, The Soft Cavalry, represents an unexpected twist of fate then: taking on the role of tour manager to a reunited Slowdive in 2014, he ended up not only falling in love with their ethereal vocalist Rachel Goswell, but marrying her. Though this debut album is very much Clarke’s baby, Goswell is never far away offering able support, and acting as the record protagonist’s muse and saviour.
It’s perhaps natural that Goswell’s band’s shoegaze sound is the sonic starting point, but the level of ambition that Clarke injects to the music, aiming for the stars with Spiritualized strings and a lush sonic clarity. In its finest moments, it’s a formula that works beautifully: see the way ‘The Velvet Fog’ rises and falls like waves, the way tribal drums brings the atmospheric ‘Dive’ back down to earth, or even the strange combination of ‘Idioteque’-era Radiohead, the BBC News theme and Balleric dance classic ‘9PM (Till I Come)’ by ATB in the glorious ‘Bulletproof’.
Offsetting this are Clarke’s lyrics, unafraid to delve into the frustrations and paranoias of his pre-Goswell life. “There’s a hole in my heart, I’m not bulletproof” he cries out on the above track, and there’s genuine fragility on ‘Only in Dreams’, the only place he feels he has the strength to get through life’s many travails.
Despite all that, this self-titled debut is overlong, and a slightly meandering middle section drags the pace down to a crawl. As beautiful as Clarke’s voice is too, Goswell’s lead vocals on ‘Passerby’ carry enough power to make hairs stand on end, and so it’s a shame not to hear more of her. However it’s the album’s grand finale that sweeps away all these issues. As a suite, the final three tracks reveal Clarke’s full ambition, producing a clearness and emotional underpinning that updates Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden for the 21st century, with ‘The Ever Turning Wheel’ bringing proceedings to a gentle but definite climax.
Throughout the record, Clarke’s songwriting stands as straightforward and approachable, something that cannot be said of the more obtuse Jesca Hoop, who returns with her fifth album Stonechild this week. Like her previous records, the subject matter of her songs is often tough to pin down. For example, she sings about how individuals wore “our Sunday best and circled your chrysalis, but you slept through the crisis,” on ‘Death Row’, typical of how obtuse and frustrating her work can occasionally be.
While it’s hard to connect with the subject and characters that Hoop writes about, the clarity of her recording and lushness of her production delivers the slightly sad emotional impact. The likes of ‘Old Fear of My Father’ and ‘Footfall to the Path’ combine a traditional English folk sound (Hoop hails from California but is now native to Manchester) with the weird Dutch angles of Tunng or This is the Kit, who appear here on ‘Outside of Eden’.
But in the end, it’s the intenseness of her harmonies that set her apart, often sounding like an army through the use of multi-tracking. She’s also not afraid of bringing together notes that clash: opener ‘Free of the Feeling’ could be found on Kate Bush’s The Sensual World. Meanwhile ‘Shoulder Charge’ and off-kilter closer ‘Time Capsule’ strip things right back and carry more than a hint of The Unthanks in the mix. Even in its most impenetrable moments, Stonechild is never anything less than hypnotic and compelling.
The Soft Cavalry by The Soft Cavalry: 4/5
Stonechild by Jessica Hoop: 4/5