Catenary Wires new album Birling Gap sees Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey bring us an album that sits between modern folk and 60s-influenced pop, taking the dark side of the former and the lighter side of the other. I like the tingle of seeing an unfamiliar word so had to look up ‘catenary’ and was delighted to discover that it’s the natural shape a chain or cable assumes when hanging between two points. After reading that I couldn’t imagine not liking this band.
Birling Gap itself is “a significant place. On the South Coast of England, it’s where steep chalk cliffs resist the rough seas of the English Channel. It’s where iconic images of England are created and re-created” and is “also a place where people, despondent and doomed, have thrown themselves off the cliffs‘ and ‘where romantic lovers go for passionate storm-tossed assignations”. This is an album of grown-up pop, or more importantly grown-up ‘English’ pop. The whole album is steeped in lush pastoral scenes, and you can imagine pulling on your white and tan driving gloves, gripping the mahogany steering wheel, and heading off through the countryside in an open topped MG or Morris Minor with Birling Gap playing non-stop on an 8-Track.
‘Face on the Rail Line’ opens Birling Gap as a woozy, summer’s train journey, a lament to the ‘loss of connection’ as we disengage from our surroundings and disappear into the sinkhole of ‘screen time’. ‘Alpine’ sounds as frosty as its title and has a snow-capped mountain of a chorus, ‘Always on my Mind’ blasts out great waves of harmonies; immense and transplendent, like The Mamas & Papas or The 5th Dimension. Within tracks like ‘Always on my Mind’ and ‘Mirrorball’ you hear the dynamic interplay between Amelia and Rob’s voices. They share vocal duties; sometimes a line each, a call and response, or joining together in harmony. Their voices are friendly and conversational, most in evidence on ‘Canterbury Lanes’ which has Rob and Amelia as burnt-out folk musicians looking back on their glory days and hoping for better days ahead.
‘Three-wheeled car’ could be a national anthem for the polite, with lines like “Understatement’s to our taste. When we say ‘that is fine’ we mean ‘please reconsider’’, ‘Out in t-shirts in the sun or a blizzard” and what could be the Catenary Wires mission statement: “Deep down we’re as English as the weather”. Stories and allusions are woven through the tracks on Birling Gap. The lyrics shine like poetry, sometimes veiled (see ‘Cinematic’), sometimes as sharp as a stinging nettle (‘Face on the Rail Line’). But Catenary Wires have grown musical doc leaves alongside the nettles and there is a familial warmth that shines out of the album. I hope they include a downloadable lyric sheet with the digital album so you can enjoy the beauty of their stories; these ten perfectly constructed vignettes of Englishness past and present which can be as dramatic as a kitchen sink drama or as playful as an Ealing Comedy. Birling Gap reminded me of Kate Bush’s ‘Lionheart’ “Give me one kiss in apple blossom. Give me one wish and I’d be wassailing in the orchard my English rose, or with my shepherd who’ll bring me home”.
Catenary Wires are Amelia Fletcher (vocals, harmonium), Rob Pursey (vocals, guitar), Fay Hallam (Hammond organ, backing vocals), Ian Button (Drums, backing vocals) and Andy Lewis (Bass, production).
Review by Paul F Cook