Stornoway stays timeless

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      Stornoway’s Beachcomber’s Windowsill is one of the year’s best albums because it’s out of step with the times. Comprising 11 well-behaved tunes written and sung by a onetime choirboy and Oxford University graduate named Brian Briggs, the English quartet’s debut sounds like it could have been recorded at just about any time in the past 50 years, owing as it does to the elemental rigour of Celtic traditional music and Brill Building pop.

      What’s perhaps most surprising about an album this formally unassuming is how utterly disarming it can be. This writer has witnessed conversations cut dead and fussy babies silenced by Briggs’s bright tenor and his band’s simple arrangements, as if some mystical secret were being revealed to whoever was in earshot. Not too shabby for four bookish guys who seem about as well-suited to the music business as a bunch of high-school math teachers.

      “When we first started out, we never talked about it, but I think we were all quite terrified of performing,” says the band’s guitar and keyboard player, Jonathan Ouin, reached at home in Oxford. “So we would kind of obscure things by wearing strange old-timey outfits or making it all seem a bit cabaret, which really didn’t lend itself to the music at all. As we became more confident, we got rid of those things and realized the songs could speak for themselves.”

      Ouin and Briggs formed the band as undergrads at Oxford, where they studied Russian literature and ornithology, respectively. Over a period of five years, they recorded the latter’s songs in bedrooms and basements on Ouin’s portable recording unit, later adding parts by brothers Ollie and Rob Steadman, on bass and drums. That approach yields handsome results on a song like “Zorbing”, a sunny three-and-a-half-minute treatise on youthful romance that whooshes through the speakers without a wasted gesture or note.

      The arrangement and production of “We Are the Battery Human” are even more restrained, as the quartet erects little more than duelling electric and acoustic guitars behind its four-part-harmony vocals. That’s a choice in keeping with the song itself, which finds Briggs and his mates railing, however politely, against the isolating effects of online culture, casting their generation as zombielike shut-ins. In the right live context, the Englishmen unplug their instruments and microphones to play “Battery Human”, a symbolic act that’s about as close as they might ever get to hectoring anyone about anything.

      “When we do that song acoustically, the reaction is generally very good,” says Ouin. “The theme of the song is something I think the band takes very seriously, though I think we all realize that it may be a little bit pompous or presumptuous to tell people to turn their computers off and go outside to enjoy the sunshine. I guess we can acknowledge the importance of that computer-based lifestyle while at the same time reminding people that it’s perhaps gone a little bit too far.”

      Stornoway plays the Biltmore Cabaret on Wednesday (December 8).