Stornoway: Beachcomber's Windowsill | CD Review

Rock'n'roll they aren't (they really, really aren't) but Stornoway's skill with the little details – musical and lyrical – is a delight, says Alexis Petridis

Bitter experience suggests only the foolhardy journalist makes rash judgments about an album's capacity to win awards. A multitude of factors warn against doing so: rock and pop music moves at a dizzying pace; the public is capricious and its appetites are almost impossible to accurately predict; and, in the case of the Mercury Music prize, the judging panel's ability to take leave of their senses, ignore the bookies' favourites and find a middling British rapper to dole out the gong to is the stuff of legend. Nevertheless, it seems fairly save to confer at least one prize on the debut album by Oxford-based quartet Stornoway: that of the least rock'n'roll opening lyric in the history of rock'n'roll. "Conkers shining on the ground," trills vocalist Brian Briggs, his voice set against the insistent pulse of a single bass note, "the air is cooler/ And I feel like I've just started uni."

You couldn't accuse Stornoway of pretending to be anything they're not, but somewhere, a certain kind of music fan – admittedly the kind of diehard ladrock dumbo who takes to the internet messageboards to air his golden philosophy regarding the unsuitability of the middle classes for rock music – is simultaneously exploding with rage and crossing the band off their to-do list. Notice is thus served that Stornoway's appeal may not be as universal as the early appearance on Later With Jools Holland, their placing in the BBC's Sound of 2010 poll and the devotion of the the BBC Oxford DJ who played an hour of their songs on his breakfast show and got himself suspended for his trouble might suggest. They are resolutely devoid of glamour, even by the standards of the nu-folk scene, which is hardly the VIP area at Studio 54 to start off with. They have a tendency for hello-trees-hello-sky whimsy that could provoke the members of Belle and Sebastian to demand their dinner money with menaces and flush their heads down the lavatory. The Coldharbour Road opens with an extended metaphor in which the protagonist compares himself to a seabird, despite the dire warning from history regarding that kind of thing presented by Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull, scientifically proven to be the worst novel ever written.

In fairness, The Coldharbour Lane recovers itself pretty quickly, which is more than can be said for anyone who's read Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Its surge from a mournful, reverb-heavy violin and banjo into a headlong rush of sound is one of a host of occasions on which Beachcomber's Windowsill offers evidence that anyone put off Stornoway would be missing out. Zorbing rewards anyone who can get past the opening line by showing off the band's remarkable melodic facility: it rises and rises to an authentically life-affirming crescendo of brass and massed harmonies. Fuel Up is even better, a painfully actute, beautifully observed series of vignettes that start with a bored nine-year-old boy in the back of a car and end with him 18 years on, trying and failing to reconnect with a schoolfriend on a visit to his hometown: it would be moving even it weren't set to such a gorgeous tune, the standard woody hues of the band's largely acoustic sound coloured in with flecks of organ and what sounds like a cimbalom.

It also reveals their limitations. The idea that Stornoway might be a band ill-equipped to rock out is something of a foregone conclusion – it seems unlikely that anyone who buys an album called Beachcomber's Windowsill is going to be crushed with disappointment that it doesn't sound like AC/DC – but it's underlined by Watching Birds. It churns along on two chords before lapsing into the double-time drumming of old US hardcore punk, but sounds deeply unpersuasive, in much the same way that Hugh Grant wouldn't be terribly convincing cast as Henry Rollins in a Black Flag biopic. Similarly, their attempt at a protest song, We Are the Battery Human, falls flat: socking it to the office-bound with a plunking banjo accompaniment, it has something of the air of that awful 60s folk number about suburbanites living in little boxes made of ticky-tacky, the one Tom Lehrer described as "the most sanctimonious song ever written".

It's not as bad as that, but it's far less edifying than something like Boats and Trains, a lovely, sympathetic portrayal of two people drawn into a staid relationship, "destined to go nowhere by the fear of unrequited love". Stornoway do telling details better than broad brushstrokes, which is a limitation. But when they do telling details that well, that, and any other objection you could raise, doesn't seem to matter at all.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Stornoway: Beachcomber's Windowsill | CD review
The Oxford band's long-awaited debut is packed with sunny songs that have an emotional depth

Katie Toms

22, May, 2010 @11:05 PM

Article image
First sight: Stornoway

The most marvellous thing we've seen in ages

Michael Hann

23, Apr, 2009 @11:01 PM

Article image
Laura Barton interviews Stornoway
From gigs in camper vans to being on TV with Jay-Z, it's been a rollercoaster of a ride for Stornoway so far. No wonder they seem a bit scared and bewildered, says Laura Barton

Laura Barton

04, Feb, 2010 @10:25 PM

Hail, Hail, Rock 'n' Roll

Laura Barton: My autumn mornings are soundtracked by Stornoway, whose music strikes the same note of sharp sunlight and a faint chill underfoot

Laura Barton

18, Sep, 2009 @8:42 AM

Stornoway | Pop review
ICA, London
The folk-pop purveyed by this young Oxford group is delicate – so why did they play it so loud, asks Michael Hann

Michael Hann

24, Sep, 2009 @8:50 PM

Stornoway – review

With a winningly ambitious second album in Tales from Terra Firma, Stornoway will widen an unlikely breach in the mainstream, says Malcolm Jack

Malcolm Jack

13, Feb, 2013 @5:56 PM

Stornoway – review
Briggs is a halting frontman between songs, but their a cappella barbershop croon-alongs reveal Stornoway to be a very special band indeed, writes Ian Gittins

Ian Gittins

18, Nov, 2010 @10:00 PM

Article image
New band of the day – No 534: Stornoway
This band of brainboxes boast a repertoire of jolly ecological anthems about matters piscine and ornithological

Paul Lester

24, Apr, 2009 @3:28 PM

Stornoway: Tales from Terra Firma – review

No curse of the second album for the triumphantly expansive Stornoway, writes Michael Hann

Michael Hann

07, Mar, 2013 @9:00 PM

Article image
Music Weekly: Stornoway

We're on the road with Stornoway, who reveal a surprising rock'n'roll lifestyle and play a track for us. Plus, Californian musician Tune-Yards talks about singing in Swahili

Presented by Alexis Petridis and produced by Peter Sale

04, Jun, 2010 @11:34 AM