Artist: Owls By Nature
Title: The Forgotten And The Brave
Released: 17th November 2014
It seems natural to start a review of Owls By Nature by drawing some favourable comparisons with the likes of Counting Crows, Bruce Springsteen and The Gaslight Anthem. The Forgotten And The Brave, their third album to date, is steeped with the same small town, country rock and story telling that makes such artists great, and there is no question that Owls By Nature are from the same lineage. Their place in this genre is well earned though.
Immediately it is obvious how well crafted this album is: no guitar line or harmony is remotely gratuitous, no unnecessary weight is laid on a sub-par lyric (I'm looking at you Gaslight Anthem) and nothing feels like filler or throwaway material. In fact it all leaves a hell of an impression.
As the record unravels it becomes increasingly clear that these are real musicians, as comfortable with acoustic instruments as they are behind the forgiving volume of electric ones. You don't get to be able to write songs like this by just looking the part, so although this is an easy album to enjoy on first listen, it definitely favours substance over style. And whilst you would be forgiven thinking that its immediate accessibility implies a lack of overall depth, don't be fooled: it is accessible because the arrangements are balanced and restrained, because the lyrics are universal and because the song writing is classier than a top hat and cane. Besides, Ian McIntosh's vocals have a sort of shaky venerability that, whilst I personally love, I suppose could be seen as something of an acquired taste. Sometimes the lyrics are a little unclear, which is a shame, but musically the songs are so instantly rewarding that this occasional lack of diction somehow adds to the record's depth and I suspect I will keep discovering lyrics I connect with on each listen.
Brothers, the opener, is an upbeat, bouncy guitar driven rock track whose bluegrass influenced lead guitar licks and uplifting feel act as a sort of mission statement for the rest of the record. It is followed by Little Birds in which we get our first clear glimpse the album's deliciously distorted and understated organ work.
It is the third track Darkness, however, that is the first clear crowd pleaser. Not a bar is wasted as the vocal hooks and subtle harmonies, washy organ lines and twangy picked guitar parts are layered over an old school, good times stamp'n'clap rock song. There is a beautiful sincerity that comes across melodically as the guitars and drums really dig into the big ringing chords of the chorus and bridge and, before you know it, three and a half minutes have passed. I know I've already made this point but...this is quality song writing.
The record then shifts a gear or two into the acoustic guitar led, reflective Oh Alberta. This melancholic and pretty country song (complete with pedal steel guitar) paints a picture of a sad family with problems a-plenty:
“Oh my father took an axe into his hand,
He could cut a tree but he could not make himself into a man.”
This kind of Nashville nostalgia could easily be the downfall of a lesser band, but in reality it is these quieter moments that take The Forgotten And The Brave from being a good album to a great one.
Frankly, there isn't a bad song on this record. Run has a bottom lip bitingingly good half time chorus, gritty guitar tones and gloriously Springsteen subject matter of escape (“I'm waiting for my next chance to run”). Would, a quiet, heartfelt track that shines a spotlight on some lovely vocal harmonies puts me in mind of I Won't Back Down by Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers (though far more rootsey) and Back Right Down leans into its chilled out groove and guitar solo: a lovely way to close out the album.
Wringley Field, however, is not just my favourite song on the album, but one of my favourite songs of this year. It is a genuinely beautiful traveling song that paints a rainy picture and leads you into its fragile world. Its lyrics are effortless, poignant and scan as if Paul Simon had written them:
"And on the long drive home we looked up how to please a woman
And we stayed awake to it being read aloud.
And it’s all we could think of before the border we tried crossing
A strange strip of land filled with drug sniffing hounds.
And all the while this road it seemed foreign
And all the while I was thinking just of you"
It slowly builds before dropping to a gorgeous four part vocal harmony that re-ignites into an almost gospel-esque repetition of "I’m not afraid, I’m not afraid, I’m not going to bend to the will of the things you say". It is utterly beautiful, affirming and uplifting in equal measures.
You know it is a good record when, after the first couple of songs all you can think about is which of your friends you should play it to first. That said, I can quite see that it isn't for everyone. The production is perhaps a little smooth in places and one or two of the songs are lacking the edge and bite that you might want from a bunch of tattooed guys with guitars, but I'm nit picking. This is a great album: really enjoyable, highly skilful and with some genuinely outstanding moments that I am already looking forward to revisiting.