During my freshman year of college, perhaps in an attempt to hide from the overbearing San Diego sun or just my roommate, I retreated to a haven of folky British pop groups. The Beta Band, Turin Brakes, Badly Drawn Boy—they all played regularly on my stereo, which may have seemed sort of antisocial in retrospect. But to me, they were good company, a respite from the overbearing nü-metal and jungle sounds blasting mercilessly from across the dorm hallway. As a private revolt I took shelter in quirk and subtlety. I’m sure I listened to other types of music at the time, but for reasons I can’t quite figure out, these are the ones that stand out the most in my mind, tied to a particular era and a particular state of mind.
I’m sure I sound absolutely ridiculous, but as dorky and `twee’ as I sound, I can only look back fondly when hearing The Three E.P.s or The Hour of Bewilderbeast, content to allow hindsight to blur. Shame, then, that the Beta Band broke up, Turin Brakes abandoned their pastoral tones for more of a rock sound and Badly Drawn Boy sunk into a sort of MOR songwriting rut. There are other groups, such as Band of Bees and Aliens, who both put out good albums this year and could have recaptured my interest in electronics-laden British folk (or `folktronica’ if you must, wankers). Yet Good Arrows, the third album by UK sextet Tunng bests their peers with an album that resonates with a nostalgic charm, yet remains fresh and vibrant.
Tunng has expanded into full-band mode on Good Arrows, building beyond the core songwriting foundation of Mike Lindsay and Sam Genders. That doesn’t mean they’ve gone rock, however; still a bit sleepy, fit for rainy days and moments of reflection, Good Arrows is elegant and intricate, yet it’s still a lot of fun to listen to. Much like The Beta Band, to whom the band is often compared, Tunng pairs their autumnal folk sound with electronic beats and full, heady arrangements, the sum of which is much greater than merely `folk.’
Good Arrows is the most accessible and most `pop’ of any of Tunng’s albums to date, a trait that’s apparent early on with the standout opener “Take.” While the bits of shimmering dulcimer may sound more like the work of a baroque folk outfit, the electronic bass squelches, handclaps and undeniably catchy melody say otherwise. Similarly, “Bricks,” with its slide riffs, backwards samples and insistent strumming is a fine single, catchy and simple. With “Bullets,” the band builds up to an epic, mighty sound, albeit filtered through their quirky electro-folk factory. Simple piano chords and stomping hoedown percussion drive the song, yet it’s Genders’ lyrics that make the song such a beautiful enigma: “we’re catching bullets in our teeth/ it’s hard to do but they’re so sweet.”
The band isn’t above throwing a curveball, as in “Soup,” where the group shouts the song’s title in unison before the acoustic instrumental gives way to a distorted, electric sound. Meanwhile, the brief “Spoons” has a tense urgency, ending on a sample of a woman saying `how your tiny hands played with my bosom.’ Huh? Right, moving on… “King,” in its minimal, subtle way, is a climactic standout, a song in which the group’s strengths come together perfectly, tightly constructed yet spacious, each note ringing commandingly beneath gorgeous female backing vocals.
Tunng’s elegant and restrained folk-pop sounds simultaneously meticulous and effortless. There’s clearly a lot going on, but that stomping, grinding electronics factory manages to manufacture something much more beautiful than expected. Good Arrows may have a rainy day or Sunday morning ambience about it—it’s by no means a noisy rock record—but that’s exactly what makes it such a warm and wonderful listen.
The Beta Band – The Three E.P.s
Badly Drawn Boy – The Hour of Bewilderbeast
Grizzly Bear – Yellow House