Given that Shetland is hailed as a place that spawns almost more musicians than salmon, it is nevertheless probably fair to say that singer/songwriters still tend to be a bit of a rare species in the isles, most notably those of the male variety.
Sure, a mere handful of very worthy individuals successfully swim against the tide, but you have to admit we’re hardly spoilt for choice on this particular page of Shetland’s cultural menu. However, what we lack in terms of quantity we thankfully tend to make up for in quality, and one of that rare breed I’ve just mentioned certainly falls into this latter category. Stand up and be counted Malachy Tallack.
After the toe in the water that was his debut CD The Desert, his second album Edges & Spaces clearly showcased an increasing musical focus and lyrical maturity, so perhaps not surprisingly his latest offering From the Thorn continues this upwardly mobile trend – and then some.
Possibly his UK tour supporting Runrig – an unlikely road-trip perhaps, but one that apparently worked well (Malachy sold more albums than any previous support act they had taken on the road with them, and indeed often outsold the band) – has added to and refined that maturity and, perhaps more importantly, clearly increased his musical self-confidence. As such this albeit temporary dalliance with the Gaelic rock machine has certainly justified his initially hesitant decision to join their tour.
From the Thorn also delivers a generally more upbeat feel than its predecessors, but almost inevitably Tallack still finds some pretty dark corridors to walk down throughout its 11 tracks. Tales of lost or unrequited love, night-time tremors or pontifications on life itself sit remarkably comfortably alongside those highlighting his own personal pride of place, and even one terrific song that’s splattered with the mud and blood of World War I’s Flanders trenches.
More Than a Lifetime is the suitably strong and impactive opener that every album demands, a life reflecting song with singer and band bound together in tight accord.
The band then takes an immediate break as their fully-charged opener is followed by Creeping Willow, a stripped bare, world class song by any stretch of the imagination – just the man and his guitar, strong lyrically and with the kind of infectious melody that grabs your brain, immediately installing itself in the recesses of your subconscious where it will recycle itself for ages without any need for a further listen. You will want to listen to it again though – immediately. Yep, it’s that good a song.
The sublimely beautiful The Sadness in Yourself treads a very similar path, again paved with wonderfully reflective lyrics. “Sun pours through the doorway, throws shadows round the hall, tumble into corners, gather where they fall.” Okay, accepted it might not be Dylan at his very best, but these are genuine story songs, touchingly identifiable with their composer’s personal and innermost thoughts, peppered with clever lyrical twists, turns and phrases and songs that give a resounding musical kicking to the bland, directionless utterings of Messrs Blunt and Morrison et al – while clearly only someone who has genuinely loved and lost could write a song like In Other Worlds.
Here we’re served up a classic dose of singer/songwriter-ship, fresh, new but nevertheless instantly familiar in so many other ways. Hell, there’s nothing wrong with familiarity anyway. It’s a solid foundation to build your own individual thinking upon.
But for this album Mallachy has also hitched up with a pretty powerful backing crew – and employs them less than sparingly, that’s for sure. Long-time Tallack sidekick Steven Laurenson is once again recalled for guitar and backing vocals duty, alongside Graham Malcolmson (bass), Rory Tallack (fiddle, vocals) and Paul Mullay (drums), while Astryd Jamieson lays aside her traditional leanings for a while to take on a whole new keyboard and additional vocal role.
And indeed when it works it works to great effect, especially on the likes of Over and Over and Wounded Man where the band’s power and undoubted technical prowess is expertly harnessed to accentuate the emotion of the songs themselves. But occasionally, just occasionally, this power, aligned to their apparent sheer enthusiasm for the job in hand, threatens to overwhelm things just a bit, perhaps most noticeably on Just Making Do and In the Night-time, a nevertheless great song about those early hours tremors and exaggerated emotions that afflict us all from time to time.
A song where perhaps controlled or dark musical subtlety rather than a “go for it” approach might have been more appropriate. But hey, these are small complaints (if complaints they be at all) when set against the sum of the whole, and rest assured I bet it will be a whole different ball game in this respect when the band hit the live stage.
Possibly the album’s two outstanding songs are saved for closing the second half, being rolled out like two late-in-the-game, top quality substitutes.
On Wounded Man the band once again captures the perfect blend of power, emotion and subtlety to support their heart-shattered singer, while Last Man Standing is a quite awesome reflection on the merits and legacy of World War I through the thoughts of a “last Tommy” poignantly looking back on so much sacrifice and loss and asking himself: “Was it ultimately all worth it.”
“I’ve seen friends and brothers die, I remember every crime that I committed in the name of our nation,” he recalls, before deciding “All our hopes are squandered and destroyed in emptiness and greed.” It’s a heartbreaking conclusion both to the old soldier’s life and to the album in general.
From the Thorn was largely recorded in Marvin Smith’s studio in Aith and at home by band member Laurenson, while the acoustic songs were laid down in the legendary Dougie MacLean’s Perthshire studio. This approach contributes to an album of contrasting but consistently strong moods, emotions and reflections.
A man with time on his hands to think has, in turn, created a thinking man’s album that can honestly stand alongside, and occasionally above, anything currently being created by the UK’s new-wave of singer/songwriters. And at a time when Shetland seems to be suffering a bit from a hopefully temporary down-turn in quality contemporary musical output, its arrival is very welcome indeed. Let’s equally hope it also reaches a much wider audience this time around. Now that would be well deserved indeed.