by Allister Thompson
If you have poked around this blog a lot, you’ll know that ambient and prog-rock are not my only two musical passions; I also love folk music and well-crafted, intelligent singer-songwriter music. I used to make such music, in fact! But it’s gotta be pretty damn good to catch my ear. The world is jammed full of wannabe Dylans and Mitchells whose songs are frankly quite boring… billions of such people, it seems. One on every corner.
I’ve been following Ali Murray’s career for a few years now, and in fact have featured many of his recordings in my capsule roundups, both as a singer-songwriter and under his louder Vapour Night moniker. (see here, here, here, and here). So I’m a supporter — I must be, to consistently feature his music. But I will readily admit that though I liked his previous singer-songwriter recordings a lot, I knew he had yet to produce a truly top-notch, career-defining work, the kind that gets repeat plays, songs with both emotional depth and transcendent melodic elements. I knew he had one in him, but you never know if it’ll happen. Well, he’s done it with Further Still, an album dedicated to a friend who has passed on. That bittersweet recollection at the resolution of mourning is redolent in every note.
Interestingly, Murray lives in the Outer Hebrides, those windswept (REALLY friggin’ windswept) rocky island outposts of Scotland on the Atlantic coast. I know of what I speak, having spent a week in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis when I was a teenager. The landscape and relative isolation of these islands certainly have the ability to conjure deep art out of the creative soul, and due to that craggy isolation a lot of that music is quite melancholy; and being part of Scotland the popular music is often, well, also Scottish in nature (rhythmically, especially). Again, Murray’s music fits the bill. However, I must be careful to emphasize that Murray’s tunes, while they perfectly match the stormy, spartan environment in which he lives (and the cover art too), should not be taken as stereotypical Celtic melancholia, the sort that can be so overblown as to be twee. Murray’s music is often quite subtle, and on this release his palette contains a number of fine emotional and stylistic shades, which is why it’s easily his finest.
Murray favours sparse instrumentation, primarily delicate, skilful fingerpicking occasionally augmented by subtle use of synths. He also possesses a very fine tenor voice, which he uses breathily to great effect in almost a dream-pop sort of way; this music, despite occasional Celtic folk overtones, is most definitely not roots music, being far more related to classic gentle psych-folk of the sort pioneered by the likes of Nick Drake, Vashti Bunyan, fellow Scot Shelagh McDonald, Sandy Denny, Linda Perhacs, etc. — and of course another Scot, John Martyn, when he was not being very jazzy. This puts Murray squarely in the best tradition of British music.
In fact, I suggest that if you are a psych-folk aficionado, as I am, you should probably go full-on apeshit at the quality and variety of the music and performance on display here, which was recorded very ably at home by the artist himself.
The recording starts with “Weight of the Earth”, a number that more closely resembles Murray’s earlier work, a set of sorrow-laden lyrics and sparse finger-picking. A subtle organ underscores the melancholy. A lovely song, but not an indication of just how good this recording will get.
The title track contains more aggressive, heavier-thumbed picking and utilizes multi-tracked lead vocals to great dramatic effect, and another set of sad but mystical lyrics; the closest current parallel that comes to mind is the dramatic, atmospheric music of current prog buzz band Anathema (I know I go on about them all the time, but the vibe is very similar, in a good way).
Just when I thought this was going to be “merely” another pleasant Murray album with few surprises, “Stretch” came on, and this is RIGHT up my alley, a lazy, slow tune in which the tone lightens while still being melancholic, but in a more ruminative, tranquil way, and with a set of mystical lyrics with imagery like stretching the sky, the stretch of the years, the fleeting morning frost, the ripple on a lake — what I take to be an examination of those small, seemingly mundane details and experiences of life on Earth that provide the greatest spiritual profundity and beauty, if we but look for them. Murray’s restrained but highly emotional vocal is very beautiful indeed. A must-hear.
Murray wisely follows this up with the most dramatic track, “Lady of the Dying Moon”, a very hippyish Gothic vision that would fit well on an Incredible String Band album (or even Comus), with some peculiar but evocative, glammy lyrics about swallowing razor blades and other odd imagery. There’s some great fast mandolin-style picking set back in the mix that only adds to the dark flower power vibe.
“Permanent Sunset” contains wonderful use of subtle synth pad backing for ambient effect, as well as a lead melody on heavily chorused guitar, on the most typically “Celtic”-sounding track of this recording, featuring a very Scottish-sounding melody and evocative nature imagery — this would even go well on a Silly Wizard album. Well, not quite, but you get the idea if you’re familiar with Scottish folk. This ain’t no Robert Burns — in fact, think more Arthur Machen for this one and “Lady of the Dying Moon”.
“The Lily Song” is a truly delightful, wistful but uplifting instrumental for two acoustic guitars, with interweaving guitar lines and a melody and vibe that I can only describe as “loving”. That’s the word that springs to mind.
Finally, however, as a farewell Murray throws us the curveball of the seven-minute “Angel of the Ride“, the most effective marrying of shoegaze-style ambient guitar noise with acoustic folk I’ve heard since Flying Saucer Attack’s ultra-classic low-fi psych album Further, and since that album’s a major touchstone for me, there is no higher praise; in fact, because Murray is such a good singer, this hypnotic song is maybe even better in a way. There’s another beautiful, subtle melodic piano line underneath the noise and over the strummed acoustic, with Murray’s voice mixed at just the right level. Just perfect.
The emotional effect on the listener upon concluding his journey with this recording is one of sadness but also of comfort that our lives, however fleeting, are not lived in vain.
I thought highly of Murray’s talents before, but this recording, to my mind, establishes him (well, it would in a fair universe…) as a major talent on the UK music scene. This is some of the loveliest psych-folk I’ve ever heard that deserves to be mentioned with the genre’s finest recordings. Murray is a spiritually mature writer of great melodic and lyrical talents, and this is a recording I will find myself returning to regularly.
And it’s “name your price” at Bandcamp, meaning you have no excuse whatsoever — find out what you’ve been missing.
This is delicious! Great find – thanks for this. I LOVE the sound of wind in between some of these tracks – so awesome. Thank you for a great blog of great musical treats!