Trembling Bells
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Trembling Bells

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"Mike Heron & Trembling Bells with Hapton Crags - Celtic Connections, Mitchell Theatre, Glasgow, Thu 24 Jan 2013 (*****)"



Nothing lifts the soul quite like The Incredible String Band. This is why you must never swallow the line that ISB were some kind of 1960s novelty outfit, a crowd of free-love Catweazles seeing salamanders in the bonfire. They weren’t. Well, they were a bit. But also they made some of the most affecting, eccentric, spiritual music we have, like the sound of God tuning up. Mike Heron was a founding member, the Magi of their mad harmonies, and tonight Trembling Bells backed him, giving his mazy, psychedelic madrigals more conventional settings. Truly, it was a match made in Nirvana.

Trembling Bells, formed by sometime Volcanic Tongue shop-boy turned free drumme, Alex Neilson and featuring the soaring vocals of Lavinia Blackwall, could be likened to a kind of Glaswegian Fairport Convention, on a stately parade through the sunnier dells of the English folk inheritance. Here, certainly, they rendered Heron’s more obtuse and twistier numbers rather more explicable, straightening out the gnarls and turning his clippety-clop psalms into a huge, spilling, celebratory psych-folk, a glimpse into an electric Eden. This certainly helps when faced with 'A Very Cellular Song', a ten-minute number about asexual reproduction in earthworms, which sounds hellish but which here became a jaw-dropping hybrid of Blue Peter and King Crimson. Opening the show was Hapton Crags, a solo folk artist who represents quite a departure for the more typically plugged-in Creeping Bent organisation. Named for a scenic bit of wilderness in south Lanarksire, Hapton Crags (only his friends get to call him Hapton) kept it dark, with a set of compelling and unsettling murder ballads that put one in mind of Bert Jansch trying 'Lady Godiva’s Operation' by the Velvet Underground. From trippy caterpillars to shotguns in Strathaven, it was a night to reveal all the strange and glorious mysteries of the folk tradition.
Allan Brown - The List


"Mike Heron and Trembling Bells live review Vortex, London (****)"



This was an intriguing double bill, matching one of the originators of the experimental British psych-folk scene against its most interesting current exponents. Mike Heron was a founder of the Incredible String Band, the 60s heroes who fell from fashion with the ending of the hippy era, while Trembling Bells are the folk-rock band who are helping his rehabilitation. Heron was supposed to be the headliner, but it felt right that he appeared first, both for reasons of chronology and because his eclectic acoustic style provided a perfect prelude to the Bells' sonic attack.

Heron traded unashamedly in nostalgia, starting with Chinese White and Painting Box, two of his tunefully quirky songs from the ISB's 5000 Spirits album back in 1967. His voice is more ragged now, but he seemed deliriously happy to be on stage and backed by a band that included his daughter Georgia. She sported long hair and a long skirt, looking like an early ISB devotee, but proved to be an excellent singer and keyboard player. The old songs sometimes sounded twee, but mixed an entertaining sense of the absurd with influences from Celtic folk to country and gospel. By the end of his set, all four members of Trembling Bells had joined him on stage for a medley that switched from that delightful oddity A Very Cellular Song to the singalong Log Cabin Home in the Sky.

Trembling Bells started in the same engagingly brave style, with an a capella harmony duet on Seven Years a Teardrop, and then brought on the electric guitars. The band are remarkable for their soaring, folk-influenced melodies and for the clear, powerful singing of Lavinia Blackwall, who also plays guitar and keyboards. Though there were fine epic anthems here, from Colour of Night to Goathland, her voice was too often drowned out by the blitz of sound.
Robin Denselow - The Guardian


"Mike Heron and Trembling Bells live review Vortex, London (****)"



This was an intriguing double bill, matching one of the originators of the experimental British psych-folk scene against its most interesting current exponents. Mike Heron was a founder of the Incredible String Band, the 60s heroes who fell from fashion with the ending of the hippy era, while Trembling Bells are the folk-rock band who are helping his rehabilitation. Heron was supposed to be the headliner, but it felt right that he appeared first, both for reasons of chronology and because his eclectic acoustic style provided a perfect prelude to the Bells' sonic attack.

Heron traded unashamedly in nostalgia, starting with Chinese White and Painting Box, two of his tunefully quirky songs from the ISB's 5000 Spirits album back in 1967. His voice is more ragged now, but he seemed deliriously happy to be on stage and backed by a band that included his daughter Georgia. She sported long hair and a long skirt, looking like an early ISB devotee, but proved to be an excellent singer and keyboard player. The old songs sometimes sounded twee, but mixed an entertaining sense of the absurd with influences from Celtic folk to country and gospel. By the end of his set, all four members of Trembling Bells had joined him on stage for a medley that switched from that delightful oddity A Very Cellular Song to the singalong Log Cabin Home in the Sky.

Trembling Bells started in the same engagingly brave style, with an a capella harmony duet on Seven Years a Teardrop, and then brought on the electric guitars. The band are remarkable for their soaring, folk-influenced melodies and for the clear, powerful singing of Lavinia Blackwall, who also plays guitar and keyboards. Though there were fine epic anthems here, from Colour of Night to Goathland, her voice was too often drowned out by the blitz of sound.
Robin Denselow - The Guardian


"Trembling Bells Interview with Marc Riley"

Podcast Duration: 13:19

Trembling Bells talk to Marc about their growth and recent experiences.
Now on their third album, The Constant Pageant, it seems Alex, Mike, Lavinia and Simon are continuing their quest to present a mythic land where crises are encountered and conquered! Mixing up Garage, folk/rock, psychedelia and roots, and adding their guiding lights of Bruce Springsteen, Frank Sinatra and Medieval ballads, it seems this could be another session to remember. Welcome back Trembling Bells!
- BBC


"Trembling Bells' Alex Neilson: "I’d probably be a professional footballer if it wasn’t for Trout Mask Replica""

With Trembling Bells’ third album on the way, drummer Alex Neilson is all too happy to debate the finer points of folk music
Feature by David Bowes.
Published 08 April 2011

Alex Neilson’s musical calibre is not something to be questioned, as the list of his collaborators will no doubt pay testament to. Jandek, Current 93, Bonnie 'Prince' Billy; you name ‘em, chances are he’s got them on speed-dial, but 2009 saw his first release with Trembling Bells, a vehicle for making his way in a more song-oriented world. Two years on, he and his band are about to set off on an extensive UK and Ireland tour to celebrate the release of third full-length The Constant Pageant, another sublime mix of airy folkisms, psychedelia and the powerful voice of Lavinia Blackwall. We manage to catch a few words with him before he leaves for greener pastures.

For the uninitiated, how would you describe the Trembling Bells live experience?
Hopefully it’s quite varied from show to show. I like to use the gigs as an opportunity to road test some of our newest songs so they are really well drilled by the time we come to record. We have been expanding our line up to accommodate some brass and accordion players to reflect the fuller sound you would hear on the albums. We’ve also been working with a female Morris dancing troupe called The Belles of London City and my brother, Oliver, has been doing some projections too, so hopefully it is more of an interactive ‘happening’ than a regular basement bar gig.

What do you feel to be the biggest change in your music since the band’s inception?
I guess getting Mike Hastings in on guitar was quite a big change from when the band first started. He has a really vibrant style and puts his all into everything he’s doing. I always think that he could be jamming Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star and he would be sweating blood into it. This has opened up more space for guitar solos and things like that – something I would have run a mile from when we first started. I’ve also been much more open to other styles of music infecting my song writing. I’ve been listening to a lot of country, easy listening and show tunes while trying to get to the very heart of classic song writing.

Are there any rituals or patterns to your song-writing process?
I find that mobility helps a lot. If I'm travelling then that helps stimulate the mind and I can think more clearly about what I’m doing, whether this is walking through the Clyde Tunnel to Scotstoun Swimming Baths or gazing at the bone-white remnants of the Acropolis while on tour in Athens. Travelling gives you a much healthier perspective and it’s much easier to see beyond the petty grind that you can lapse into when in the same place for too long.

How much does location play a part in your sound?
I am fascinated by the resonance certain places can have, which invests them with almost heroic proportions. The very name of a place itself can inspire awe and credibility. There are countless examples of this in American folk and pop music and beyond and I am trying to key into a mode which elevates places around Britain, which have a personal resonance, into the realm of myth and mystery. In this sense certain locations play a big part in the music we make; trying to mythologize a place which provided the backdrop to some great personal realisation or other.

You’ve said that the reason the band was formed was to pursue more song-based structures. What do you think are the advantages of that over a looser, more free-form style of writing?
Writing songs was a drastic change from what I had been doing previously – mainly improvisation, traditional folk singing and drumming for other people. It has been a way of combining my experiences of playing with lots of talented and unusual musicians over the years with all my other interests. It is a much more formally considered realisation of my interests than the improvised music that I was doing before but, in some ways, it feels like a natural refinement of many of the same themes. I am very interested in tapping into the elemental energy that traditional music and improvised music smacks of but with more of a directly joyful aspect.

The new album seems to have touches of Scottish, English and American folk music. Do you think that there are universal themes or sounds that are common to folk, regardless of the origin?
It’s interesting to chart the migration of many of the antique British folk ballads over to America. Fragments of native British songs are clearly discernable on the Harry Smith Anthology of American folk, for example, (The House Carpenter or The Cuckoo or Four Nights Drunk). It seems like some of the songs lost some of the paganistic/ supernatural quality when they travelled across the pond and were assimilated more for the purpose of social commentary than recounting some mythic tale of lycanthropy as an example of fatal love (eg Molly Bawn), though I do think that many traditio - The Skinny


"Trembling Bells' Alex Neilson: "I’d probably be a professional footballer if it wasn’t for Trout Mask Replica""

With Trembling Bells’ third album on the way, drummer Alex Neilson is all too happy to debate the finer points of folk music
Feature by David Bowes.
Published 08 April 2011

Alex Neilson’s musical calibre is not something to be questioned, as the list of his collaborators will no doubt pay testament to. Jandek, Current 93, Bonnie 'Prince' Billy; you name ‘em, chances are he’s got them on speed-dial, but 2009 saw his first release with Trembling Bells, a vehicle for making his way in a more song-oriented world. Two years on, he and his band are about to set off on an extensive UK and Ireland tour to celebrate the release of third full-length The Constant Pageant, another sublime mix of airy folkisms, psychedelia and the powerful voice of Lavinia Blackwall. We manage to catch a few words with him before he leaves for greener pastures.

For the uninitiated, how would you describe the Trembling Bells live experience?
Hopefully it’s quite varied from show to show. I like to use the gigs as an opportunity to road test some of our newest songs so they are really well drilled by the time we come to record. We have been expanding our line up to accommodate some brass and accordion players to reflect the fuller sound you would hear on the albums. We’ve also been working with a female Morris dancing troupe called The Belles of London City and my brother, Oliver, has been doing some projections too, so hopefully it is more of an interactive ‘happening’ than a regular basement bar gig.

What do you feel to be the biggest change in your music since the band’s inception?
I guess getting Mike Hastings in on guitar was quite a big change from when the band first started. He has a really vibrant style and puts his all into everything he’s doing. I always think that he could be jamming Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star and he would be sweating blood into it. This has opened up more space for guitar solos and things like that – something I would have run a mile from when we first started. I’ve also been much more open to other styles of music infecting my song writing. I’ve been listening to a lot of country, easy listening and show tunes while trying to get to the very heart of classic song writing.

Are there any rituals or patterns to your song-writing process?
I find that mobility helps a lot. If I'm travelling then that helps stimulate the mind and I can think more clearly about what I’m doing, whether this is walking through the Clyde Tunnel to Scotstoun Swimming Baths or gazing at the bone-white remnants of the Acropolis while on tour in Athens. Travelling gives you a much healthier perspective and it’s much easier to see beyond the petty grind that you can lapse into when in the same place for too long.

How much does location play a part in your sound?
I am fascinated by the resonance certain places can have, which invests them with almost heroic proportions. The very name of a place itself can inspire awe and credibility. There are countless examples of this in American folk and pop music and beyond and I am trying to key into a mode which elevates places around Britain, which have a personal resonance, into the realm of myth and mystery. In this sense certain locations play a big part in the music we make; trying to mythologize a place which provided the backdrop to some great personal realisation or other.

You’ve said that the reason the band was formed was to pursue more song-based structures. What do you think are the advantages of that over a looser, more free-form style of writing?
Writing songs was a drastic change from what I had been doing previously – mainly improvisation, traditional folk singing and drumming for other people. It has been a way of combining my experiences of playing with lots of talented and unusual musicians over the years with all my other interests. It is a much more formally considered realisation of my interests than the improvised music that I was doing before but, in some ways, it feels like a natural refinement of many of the same themes. I am very interested in tapping into the elemental energy that traditional music and improvised music smacks of but with more of a directly joyful aspect.

The new album seems to have touches of Scottish, English and American folk music. Do you think that there are universal themes or sounds that are common to folk, regardless of the origin?
It’s interesting to chart the migration of many of the antique British folk ballads over to America. Fragments of native British songs are clearly discernable on the Harry Smith Anthology of American folk, for example, (The House Carpenter or The Cuckoo or Four Nights Drunk). It seems like some of the songs lost some of the paganistic/ supernatural quality when they travelled across the pond and were assimilated more for the purpose of social commentary than recounting some mythic tale of lycanthropy as an example of fatal love (eg Molly Bawn), though I do think that many traditio - The Skinny


"Trembling Bells & Bonnie 'Prince' Billy The Bonnie Bells Of Oxford album review"

Long tinselled-up as a snapshot of a band in some stage or other of transformation/stasis/golden line-up/etc, more often than not the live album is the mange covered, shaking, shitting runt of any band's discography. It's with a heavy spoonful of relief then that Trembling Bells, one of Britain's finest but least heralded eclectic folk rock bands, and Bonnie 'Prince' Billy (aka Will Oldham) have captured something of their recurring collaborations and the energy of their brief 2012 tour. Their choice to open the set with a skirt-hitching hybrid of the Bonnie Prince's '66' and The Bells' 'Just As the Rainbow' feels like an idea born more of collective mischief than anything like a collaborative tour compromise. Either way its strain of live rowdiness makes for a fantastic representation of the mixture of elements that makes up Trembling Bells' very particular DNA. Quite a packed formula it is too - folk rock's melody and narrative, country's raised eyebrow and romance, improv's looseness, the daring of 60s psychedelic rock and early music's musical economy. All of that hopefully makes the following description of the opener as a progressive rock madrigal with a roughened Celtic edge sound a little less ridiculous than it reads. Its performance sees Lavinia Blackwall's soprano voice and Manzarek keys vie for the MVP spot against Alex Neilson's spider-legged undulating drums, Oldham's fragile tenor and Mike Hastings' kosmische guitar. While The Bonnie Bells Of Oxford lacks the finesse of the Bells/Bonnie 2012 team-up album The Marble Downs that it draws much of its material from, it definitely adds a ragged fervour that the album didn't have. With the songs being pretty evenly split between Oldham and Neilson compositions (with a traditional credit and a Merle Haggard cover thrown in); The Bonnie Bells of Oxford doesn't end up feeling like a lopsided or bumpy listen. Since Trembling Bells' 2009 debut Carbeth, Alex Neilson's song writing talents have been consistently criminally underrated. His frankly astonishing evolution from improvisational drummer for hire to classic English songwriter has still to be properly explored. From the kraut-psych-head nod pop of 'Ain't Nothing Wrong With A Little Longing' to the farewell of 'Love Is A Velvet Noose', Neilson is binding together strands of influence into that most difficult of forms - a song you want to hear because you enjoy it. The steely pop chime of 'Love Made An Outlaw Of My Heart' is pure pop earworm mulch, Neilson's end of the road duet between Blackwall and Oldham doing classic guitar pop that's tip of the tongue familiar. Oldham peaks here as he slips his infamous paean to public oral sex 'So Everyone' into the set, after an equally suggestive traditional number 'My Husband's Got No Courage In Him' from Blackwall. Songs for every occasion it would seem.

So, the live album. If The Bonnie Bells Of Oxfor has a discography spot, it's certainly available for that memento of the Bells/Bonnie live experience slot. More than that though, it's also a further dose of proof that Trembling Bells are a singularly tremendous band, a fact that seems to be taking its time making itself known.
Scott McKeating - The Quietus


"Trembling Bells: The Constant Pageant album review (****)"

Trembling Bells have moved on. Once hailed as heroes of the new psych-folk movement, the Glasgow-based four-piece edge towards the mainstream with an album that is confident, melodic and crammed with rousing folk-rock anthems with a quirky edge. There are no traditional songs here, but song-writer Alex Neilson says he "thinks of traditional folk music as being like my first serious girlfriend", and almost every track has the sturdy resonance of a great British folk ballad. There are reminders of his Yorkshire upbringing on Goathland, which sounds like a slowed-down English dance tune, and also on the pounding Otley Rock Oracle, which starts like a horror story from the Yorkshire Moors ("once I saw a seven-headed dog") and ends with a wailing guitar work-out. This is an album of strong songs and strong vocals; Lavinia Blackwall is soaring, operatic and bravely full-tilt. She eases from the stirring Where Do I Go from You? to the cool and medieval-influenced Colour of Night, the Americana of Cold Heart of Mine, and the poignant but still rousing New Year's Eve, The Loneliest Night of the Year. Magnificent.
Robin Denselow - The Guardian


"Trembling Bells: The Constant Pageant album review (****)"

Trembling Bells have moved on. Once hailed as heroes of the new psych-folk movement, the Glasgow-based four-piece edge towards the mainstream with an album that is confident, melodic and crammed with rousing folk-rock anthems with a quirky edge. There are no traditional songs here, but song-writer Alex Neilson says he "thinks of traditional folk music as being like my first serious girlfriend", and almost every track has the sturdy resonance of a great British folk ballad. There are reminders of his Yorkshire upbringing on Goathland, which sounds like a slowed-down English dance tune, and also on the pounding Otley Rock Oracle, which starts like a horror story from the Yorkshire Moors ("once I saw a seven-headed dog") and ends with a wailing guitar work-out. This is an album of strong songs and strong vocals; Lavinia Blackwall is soaring, operatic and bravely full-tilt. She eases from the stirring Where Do I Go from You? to the cool and medieval-influenced Colour of Night, the Americana of Cold Heart of Mine, and the poignant but still rousing New Year's Eve, The Loneliest Night of the Year. Magnificent.
Robin Denselow - The Guardian


"Trembling Bells live review CCA, Glasgow (****)"

n our post-Mumford age, the term "folk-rock" suggests something reedy and pastoral, possibly featuring a banjo. Trembling Bells burrow deeper into both genres, channelling energies ancient, elemental and, crucially, loud. In the past year, they've collaborated and toured with both Mike Heron of the Incredible String Band and Bonnie Prince Billy, fellow travellers in every sense, but even as a four-piece they still make an impressive racket.

This is nominally a hometown gig and the final date of a fairly sprawling tour. The mood is celebratory, even giddy. The breakup duet Ain't Nothing Wrong With a Little Longing is already darkly witty, a snare-on-the-beat freakout that sees singer Lavinia Blackwall embracing "gin oblivion". But drummer and bandleader Alex Neilson also sneaks in key lines from Carly Rae Jepsen's Call Me Maybe, an Exocet missile of a song, which slot in surprisingly well.

Trembling Bells have released an album a year since 2009, and show no signs of deceleration. They play three new songs, including The Bells of Burford, an organ-heavy tribute to the medieval town in the Cotswolds, and Wide Majestic Aire, a willowy lament named for the river in Leeds. Such excursions into psychogeography have long been part of the band's rambling spirit; the woozy groove of Otley Rock Oracle, from their third album The Constant Pageant, sounds particularly fantastic, like a faerie-friendly Stereolab spiked with the lurid Italian prog of Goblin.

For the encore, Neilson and Blackwall deputise members of support band Muldoon's Picnic for Tuning Fork of the Earth, a shivery a capella that demonstrates they can wield silence as effectively as their psych-folk noise. With such an enviable workrate, it might seem like Trembling Bells are marching inexorably towards the mainstream. For now, though, they don't seem that interested in taking any shortcuts, preferring picturesque byways and gnarly leylines.
Graeme Virtue - The Guardian


"Trembling Bells and Bonnie "Prince" Billy: The Marble Downs album review (8 out of 10)"

Collaborations between disparate musical acts tend to yield one of two results — an embarrassing stain for all involved or a triumph of reinvigorated artistry. For Bonnie “Prince” Billy (Will Oldham) and Trembling Bells, their partnership falls decidedly in the latter category, bearing sweet, yet strange, fruit in the form of new album The Marble Downs.

The record’s ten songs are effectively a synergy of not only both artists’ distinct sounds, but of two countries’ musical traditions. On the one side is Oldham with his noir Appalachia-Americana fancies; on the other are Trembling Bells with their British whimsy and baroque ‘60s pop. On paper, the two styles may seem more apt to clang against each other than merge into anything coherent. Actualized on record, though, the initial jarring soon turns infectious. The two approaches don’t unite in a singular harmony, but entwine around each other like a marble cake, their strengths separate, yet complimentary. Take the back-to-back placement of organ-driven, garage-rock stomping “Ain’t Nothing Wrong With a Little Longing” with the sparse ode to loneliness “Excursions Into Assonanc” — opposing sentiments expressed with equally contrasting musical styles, yet somehow they work together within the context of the record as a whole.

The work is peopled with underwear-clad angels, sinister demons, Johnnie Walker, Merge Haggard, the Grim Reaper, ruined livers and dead anniversary flowers. It sounds dour, sure, but beyond that, the record is damn fun, the music funereal, but in a celebratory, jazzy way. Part of the album’s effectiveness is that Oldham and the Bells don’t take themselves too seriously. Wry humor and melodrama abound among the cacophonous instrumentation and protean song structures. Credit Bells’ founder and drummer Alex Neilson with crafting the off-kilter terrain, the album sharing some of its deliberate eccentricity with Tim Buckley’s classic Starsailor.

Opening the record with a grandiose arrangement and Bells’ singer Lavinia Blackwell’s siren-like intonations, “I Made a Date (With an Open Vein)” clears the road for the journey to follow. As Blackwell’s operatic howls carry forward and the brass resounds, a fuzzy guitar sidewinds beneath like a snake through the desert sand. When Oldham’s warbling voice joins the fray, it is as a perfect foil for Blackwell’s cutting precision, their pairing a study in the contrast between the sacred and the profane. “How long? / Not so long / Till Death knocks at your door / As the rain falls on everyone / So the reaper keeps his sword”, Oldham and Blackwell sing in unison, closing out the number in a refrain that may appear despairing, but could also come across as a call for devil-may-care abandon.

What follows is a series of tête-à-tête duets between Oldham and Blackwell, rich with pathos whether expressing the two characters’ disdain for one another or their mutually-destructive affection. “I Can Tell You’re Leaving” is a series of swapped turn-of-phrase put-downs, reminiscent of the Pogues’ “Fairtytale of New York”. Oldham plays the desperate drunk to Blackwell’s soiled dove, finishing each other’s sentences in scathing and clever cursing as jaunty piano-key tickling plays behind them. “I used to be your universe”, Oldham sings, provoking Blackwell’s, “You’re not even my Birmingham”.

Coming in on the other side of the spectrum is the sentimental “Love is a Velvet Noose”, a title sure to be a motto on the lips of the jilted and experienced. Rife with suicidal implications and whiskey-beckoning oblivion, the song is the most affecting and sincere of the lot, a paean of Oldham and Blackwell trading endearments over a mournful cello and violin and sparse piano work — “So dress me in a winding sheet / While my lover sings the blues / A dozen angels ‘round my crown and feet / And ‘round your neck / A velvet noose”.

The best one-two punch occurs near the close of the record, starting with Blackwell taking lead on the a cappella “My Husband’s Got No Courage in Him”. She is menace personified in this traditional murder ballad setup: “I wish my husband / He was dead / And in his grave / I’d quickly lay him / And then I’d find another one / That had a little courage in him.” The track bleeds into a reworking of Oldham’s “Riding”, a scary as hell blues scorcher featuring a call-and-response between vocalists, Oldham demur and Blackwell bellowing: “Where you goin’ ridin’, boy? / I’m gonna ride on down to see you”. The stench of brimstone saturates the piece, its hammering intensity befitting the charge of Judge Holden from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.

Praise aside, there are some missteps on the album. The Robin Gibb cover closing the record, “Lord Bless All”, lacks the impact a work of this stature deserves; perhaps coming on the heels of the two previous songs set the odds against it. Also, a number of the songs extend a tad longer than necessary, trailing off rather than wrapping up - PopMatters


"Trembling Bells and Bonnie "Prince" Billy: The Marble Downs album review (8 out of 10)"

Collaborations between disparate musical acts tend to yield one of two results — an embarrassing stain for all involved or a triumph of reinvigorated artistry. For Bonnie “Prince” Billy (Will Oldham) and Trembling Bells, their partnership falls decidedly in the latter category, bearing sweet, yet strange, fruit in the form of new album The Marble Downs.

The record’s ten songs are effectively a synergy of not only both artists’ distinct sounds, but of two countries’ musical traditions. On the one side is Oldham with his noir Appalachia-Americana fancies; on the other are Trembling Bells with their British whimsy and baroque ‘60s pop. On paper, the two styles may seem more apt to clang against each other than merge into anything coherent. Actualized on record, though, the initial jarring soon turns infectious. The two approaches don’t unite in a singular harmony, but entwine around each other like a marble cake, their strengths separate, yet complimentary. Take the back-to-back placement of organ-driven, garage-rock stomping “Ain’t Nothing Wrong With a Little Longing” with the sparse ode to loneliness “Excursions Into Assonanc” — opposing sentiments expressed with equally contrasting musical styles, yet somehow they work together within the context of the record as a whole.

The work is peopled with underwear-clad angels, sinister demons, Johnnie Walker, Merge Haggard, the Grim Reaper, ruined livers and dead anniversary flowers. It sounds dour, sure, but beyond that, the record is damn fun, the music funereal, but in a celebratory, jazzy way. Part of the album’s effectiveness is that Oldham and the Bells don’t take themselves too seriously. Wry humor and melodrama abound among the cacophonous instrumentation and protean song structures. Credit Bells’ founder and drummer Alex Neilson with crafting the off-kilter terrain, the album sharing some of its deliberate eccentricity with Tim Buckley’s classic Starsailor.

Opening the record with a grandiose arrangement and Bells’ singer Lavinia Blackwell’s siren-like intonations, “I Made a Date (With an Open Vein)” clears the road for the journey to follow. As Blackwell’s operatic howls carry forward and the brass resounds, a fuzzy guitar sidewinds beneath like a snake through the desert sand. When Oldham’s warbling voice joins the fray, it is as a perfect foil for Blackwell’s cutting precision, their pairing a study in the contrast between the sacred and the profane. “How long? / Not so long / Till Death knocks at your door / As the rain falls on everyone / So the reaper keeps his sword”, Oldham and Blackwell sing in unison, closing out the number in a refrain that may appear despairing, but could also come across as a call for devil-may-care abandon.

What follows is a series of tête-à-tête duets between Oldham and Blackwell, rich with pathos whether expressing the two characters’ disdain for one another or their mutually-destructive affection. “I Can Tell You’re Leaving” is a series of swapped turn-of-phrase put-downs, reminiscent of the Pogues’ “Fairtytale of New York”. Oldham plays the desperate drunk to Blackwell’s soiled dove, finishing each other’s sentences in scathing and clever cursing as jaunty piano-key tickling plays behind them. “I used to be your universe”, Oldham sings, provoking Blackwell’s, “You’re not even my Birmingham”.

Coming in on the other side of the spectrum is the sentimental “Love is a Velvet Noose”, a title sure to be a motto on the lips of the jilted and experienced. Rife with suicidal implications and whiskey-beckoning oblivion, the song is the most affecting and sincere of the lot, a paean of Oldham and Blackwell trading endearments over a mournful cello and violin and sparse piano work — “So dress me in a winding sheet / While my lover sings the blues / A dozen angels ‘round my crown and feet / And ‘round your neck / A velvet noose”.

The best one-two punch occurs near the close of the record, starting with Blackwell taking lead on the a cappella “My Husband’s Got No Courage in Him”. She is menace personified in this traditional murder ballad setup: “I wish my husband / He was dead / And in his grave / I’d quickly lay him / And then I’d find another one / That had a little courage in him.” The track bleeds into a reworking of Oldham’s “Riding”, a scary as hell blues scorcher featuring a call-and-response between vocalists, Oldham demur and Blackwell bellowing: “Where you goin’ ridin’, boy? / I’m gonna ride on down to see you”. The stench of brimstone saturates the piece, its hammering intensity befitting the charge of Judge Holden from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.

Praise aside, there are some missteps on the album. The Robin Gibb cover closing the record, “Lord Bless All”, lacks the impact a work of this stature deserves; perhaps coming on the heels of the two previous songs set the odds against it. Also, a number of the songs extend a tad longer than necessary, trailing off rather than wrapping up - PopMatters


"Trembling Bells and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – The Marble Downs album review (****)"

When a band talks of the “craft of songwriting” you know one of two things; they are either basking in buckets of their own pretension for their vapid rehash of their heroes’ past glories, or they are dedicated champions and restless creatives channelling the wheat from the chaff for the good of humanity’s inner ear.

Glasgow’s Trembling Bells approach their fourth album (in as many years) with a strident optimism rarely seen by a current band, after the collaborative baton was grasped with vigour by fellow creative dynamo Americana veteran Will Oldham (aka Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, aka Palace Brothers/Songs/Music) and fall happily into the latter of the two camps.

Where other collaborators may ‘guest’ on each others’ songs (sharing a writing credit here, a background twang there) Oldham gets deep amidst it courtesy of Trembling Bells’ Alex Neilson, who had the vision to see the potential dramatic frisson between the vocal stylings of his own band’s Lavina Blackwell and Oldham.

The ominously titled opener I Made A Date (With An Open Vein) sounds like a weary mariachi beamed in from a ’70s spaghetti western replete with female warble and wigged-out electric guitar before the twinned vocal interplay begins a suitably biblical rain-lashed epiphany.

I Can Tell You’re Leaving’s joyous bounce is the most obvious (albeit skewed) echo of the Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood pairing – or even Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan at a push. Both utilise the sweet/sour contrast of angelic, innocent female rubbed against the grain of a seasoned rogue male cursed in life but drawn together in love. In this case the classically-trained Trembling Bells singer throws stark contrast against Oldham’s ramshackle high pitched vocal, but amidst such a rich empathic musical backdrop it blends like fine whisky.

Genres tend to go astray and intermingle without fear of muddying the waters; so what if a bit of country twang rubs against a wall of psych guitar? Because soon enough it will give way to a folk vocal set against some bubblegum pop backing. But when simplicity speaks so effectively, as on the earthily bawdy and scathing honesty in My Husband’s Got No Courage featuring Oldham and Blackwall unaccompanied, words alone do their emotional damage.

It’s in stark contrast to the psych-drone Western stride of Riding that struts (Oldham) and entreats (Blackwall) in a push-pull, see-saw. But this is no mere po-faced excursion in musical back-slapping, as demonstrated with the evident humour on the positively mediaevel Ferrari In A Demolition Derby. How lines such as “Your love is like a butterfly… just responds to green paper and blue skies… the heart is on treacherous terrain, a Ferrari in a demolition derby” can be sung without a snigger only makes it all the more human. This collaboration mines a rich vein of biblical referencing, set to physical failings, yearnings and emotional fuck-ups, but all delivered with a rich beauty.

What other album would feature influences as diverse as poet Dorothy Parker (her Excursion To Assonance set to music), whose sparse piano balladry pushes the cracked high waiver of Oldham’s vocal into a lovely new backdrop that seems to drift in and out of sync, before being tethered by the reassured Blackwall vocal, and The Bee Gees in the form of a cover of Robin Gibb’s Lord Bless All, with its hymn-like qualities teased between the two vocalists before obliterating into psychedelic breakdown? That gives some note of this album’s creative kudos. It all amounts to a collaboration enrichingly beneficial to both sides – and to the listener.
Andy Jex - Music OMH


"'Abandoned Love' album review (4**** stars)"

From Medieval balladry to Garage Rock- Glasgow quartet’s brilliant second. For Trembling Bell’s debut, drumming songwriter Alex Neilson used his break-up with singer Lavinia Blackwall as inspiration. Now the dream of England is creative fuel, it’s culture and geography undergoing a mythic rethink on this concise, deeply romantic, totally original album. A classically trained soprano, Blackwall brings elegance to songs that sound like they are populated by figures from an Edward Burne-Jones painting. On Darling, she explains that she has been busy serving the King of England as a harp trills away in the background. September is the Month of Death begins with a crumhorn fanfare that gives way to poetic, bucolic imagery illustrating a tale of grief. And the soaring, distorted guitars and jaunty beat of Love Made an Outlaw of my Heart reveal the musical wit and mischief that underpins the Bells’ apparently serious moments.
Will Hodgkinson - Mojo


"'Abandoned Love' album review (4**** stars)"

From Medieval balladry to Garage Rock- Glasgow quartet’s brilliant second. For Trembling Bell’s debut, drumming songwriter Alex Neilson used his break-up with singer Lavinia Blackwall as inspiration. Now the dream of England is creative fuel, it’s culture and geography undergoing a mythic rethink on this concise, deeply romantic, totally original album. A classically trained soprano, Blackwall brings elegance to songs that sound like they are populated by figures from an Edward Burne-Jones painting. On Darling, she explains that she has been busy serving the King of England as a harp trills away in the background. September is the Month of Death begins with a crumhorn fanfare that gives way to poetic, bucolic imagery illustrating a tale of grief. And the soaring, distorted guitars and jaunty beat of Love Made an Outlaw of my Heart reveal the musical wit and mischief that underpins the Bells’ apparently serious moments.
Will Hodgkinson - Mojo


Discography


2009 Carbeth
2010 Abandoned Love
2011 The Constant Pageant
2012 The Marble Downs (with Bonnie Prince Billy)
2012 The Duchess E.P.
2013 The Bonnie Bells of Oxford (live, with Bonnie Prince Billy)

Photos

Bio

Trembling Bells' are an acclaimed Glasgow based indie folk rock band that reference late 1960s psychedelia and British folk revival acts such as Fairport Convention and the Incredible String Band. Lavinia Blackwall's soaring vocal style has drawn comparisons to Sandy Denny, and she took part in the recent tour 'The Lady A Homage to Sandy Denny' which was televised by the BBC.

The band will tour the UK this summer in a special show called ‘The Circle is Unbroken’ with Mike Heron of Incredible String Band. This show follows on from the release of Trembling Bells’ acclaimed collaborative album with Bonnie Prince Billy called 'The Marble Downs' on Honest Jon’s last year. The bands current release 'The Bonnie Bells of Oxford' was recorded on tour with Bonnie Prince Billy last year.

Trembling Bells have enjoyed much success since their inception in 2008. The band have gained favour with such musical titans as Joe Boyd, Paul Weller and the The Unthanks as well as unanimous critical acclaim for their first three albums, 'Carbeth', 'Abandoned Love' and 'The Constant Pageant' (all on Honest Jons records). They featured heavily in the Wire cover story alongside Alasdair Roberts documenting the emerging experimental folk scene in Scotland (Caledonia Dreaming, March 2010), while also being mentioned in Rob Young’s book, Electric Eden.

"Trembling Bells' four albums to date have cast the everyday in a mythic, golden light." The WIRE

“The band are remarkable for their soaring, folk-influenced melodies and for the clear, powerful singing of Lavinia Blackwall, who also plays guitar and keyboards.”
The Guardian