album review// August and After ‘Embers’
words// Wesley Freeman-Smith
August & After are an incredibly warm band, with a sound that’s the very definition of pastoral – classically played guitar, swooning strings of all octaves, and hopeful lyrics phrased in a tone that implies elocution is high on their list of priorities. There’s little about Embers which is hard-edged, mean or caustic; a rarity for my taste in music. It’s clear they set out to create an album of uncomplicated beauty, and besides the thread of mournfulness or yearning that weaves it way throughout, they’ve done exactly that.
Opener ‘Halley’ begins exactly as you’d expect from an orchestral-acoustic duo, all lush strings and tenderness. Gentle percussion enters to mix to dictate the ebb and flow of the song, and the piece comes to a climax with brass and string arrangements that are perfectly paced. Throughout the album, this richness of instrumentation and dedication to detail are it’s hallmarks; not one note feels carelessly placed, not one element ever straying into excess. The opening song ends abruptly, leaving you floating in the goodbyes of the songs lyrics.
The gorgeous ‘Waltz for Marie’ takes a mournful tone, with male-female lyrics telling a story of escape from abuse. Sophie Jamieson, rising folk star in her own right, makes a welcome addition to the song – not the first surprise for me throughout the course of the album. Her hushed tones are as beautifully evocative as any of the strings or piano part here. Lead track ‘The Orchard’ has been floating around in demo form for some time, and it’s nice to see it’s fully realized version here. It’s thoughtful lyricism paints some lovely pictures, and again it’s full of the kind of arrangements that swell in a way that fills your heart. It may not be trendy to talk about your heart when reviewing an album, and perhaps in response to this, my only criticism is there’s just too much beauty here – it could be seen as too saccharine perhaps.
The antidote to this seems to be broadening your palette of collaborators – the press release informs me there are no less than 10 guests on this album, the band offering up their work as a platform in itself. A quick glance over the bands’ website reveals they’re intent on maintaining a healthy, open relationship to their art from the start: fans have contributed alternative artwork and foreign languages to some of the songs (‘The Jailbreak Song’), and further research shows there are video projects in the works. This lack of preciousness about one’s art is incredibly refreshing, all the moreso as this openness hasn’t detracted from the continuity of the album at all. At every stage it’s haunting, beautiful, and feels somehow very pure. The multitude of different voices seems only to add depth to the album, rather than dilute it’s voice at all. Small touches like the abundant harmonies, the trombones and flutes, the hand-claps, all really help the album stand above a lot of releases of a similar ilk. Background vocals on songs such as ‘Gleam Behind the Ghosts’ go further than ornamentation – the flourishes are the foundation; the aesthetic is the substance.
As a debut, this album is wonderfully crafted with a fantastic ear for detail. Though they can no longer be counted among Cambridge’s familiar circle of folk musicians, we should be incredibly pleased that their experiences and friends here helped shape it. It’s a winning formula that’s bound to see them go far, and one can imagine that the future will only be bigger and brighter for the duo. Make sure to catch them while they’re still small, before festivals start snapping up all their bookings.
Embers is released on August 1st. The duo will perform in Cambridge on July 13th – more info