Monday, November 16, 2009

CD Review: OWLS OF THE SWAMP - SMOKY BAY (Independent)

Tuesday, October 02, 2007 

Musically and lyrically interpreting the environment around you is a favourite subject of songwriters, and there is nothing like a new environment to heighten perceptions, particularly one that confronts you in the ways immersing yourself in Iceland will. So it is that Owls of the Swamp AKA Pete Uhlenbruch, decamps to Reykjavik, (the literal translation of which makes up this album's title) and returns with a swag of ruminations on the elemental forces of nature, it's effects on the humans, and some songs that may be about a girl. Interpretations of these subjects will inevitably be personal, and as such this is an intimate record, with Uhlenbruch's unblinkered vision an omnipotent, honest and welcome guide. Having more in common with W.H Auden's book 'Letters From Iceland' than any current recent releases, you can feel a loving attention to detail in this record that befits a man intoxicated by it's subject. Songs like Meet Me At The BSI and the instrumental Death By Waterfall are delicately measured, the mixture of electronic squeaks, vocal harmonies and simple instrumentation gorgeous and illuminating; the arrangements on the all-to-brief opening Midnight would prick even Richard Kirby's ears.

Playing almost all of the instruments himself, though never sounding like it, Smoky Bay could be said to have echoes of Mugison or early Decemberists at a stretch, certainly Uhlenbruch has an ear for combining sounds (which Simon Moro has done a fine job of capturing), and like both of those pioneers, he communicates with an efficacy belying his years, unafraid to reveal his own frailty in the lyrics, the sense of which is beautifully underscored by lingering piano melodies and softly strummed acoustic guitars, especially in songs like Storm In The Sea.

With appropriately homely artwork by Luci Everett, this is a record not shouting to be heard, but seducing those who happen upon it, with it's warm, sleepy tones and expansive scope yet intimate delivery. Unfortunately this is likely to be heard by few people in it's entirety given it's small run and lack of label, though given the number of international listeners online it may be that this will be more celebrated overseas than here. How much this would bother Uhlenbruch is hard to say since these seem such personal songs - all of them first-person narratives - you feel this is more a record (as in a recording of events) than a release. It is possible to hear a long-term career beginning here, certainly the skill and individual voice is forming fast, though it remains to be seen what happens when he turns his attention from the inspiration of exotic locales. But as the Owl asks himself on the swaddling Heart Of The Mountain: "How far down this path do you think you can go? All of the way..."

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