Album Review: Keston Cobblers Club – Wildfire

“Free from the crippling weight of popular expectation, the Cobblers have found themselves capable of soaring to dizzying heights of creation and innovation”

ug Rating:  ★★★★★

In popular terms, there’s never been a worse time to be an acoustic-led, folk or traditional group. As such, it’s never been easier. The Mumford-led folk revival is well and truly over, with the waistcoat-clad, bearded legions embracing the experimental minimalism of alt-J and James Blake in its place. What then are the accordion-and-banjo-playing 20 somethings of 2010 to do? The five folksy folks who make up Keston Cobblers Club have come up with a simple answer: keep making extraordinary, candid music and keep playing it to anyone and everyone who wants to listen.

This was seemingly the mantra of Julia, Matt, Tom, Bethan and Harry when they released their debut One, For Words back in 2012. The Kent-based band are the very definition of DIY music-makers; they wrote and recorded the album in Julia and Matt’s childhood home, managed their own production and design, and took to the road under their own steam, making their way from local festivals, to support slots for Stornoway and To Kill a King, to a 8 date headline tour in 2013. One, For Words is a rare thing; a record so strangely kind and sad, equally vulnerable and knowing, that feels ageless in both its youth and wisdom. It’s also a declaration of sorts – a promise to make music that’s nothing less than entirely honest, unswayed by anything other than a desire to create and share.

If One, For Words was an artwork defined by its simplicity and carefree hand, Wildfire works into it with deeper shade, darker contrast and a broader, subtler set of colours

Does this make sophomore album Wildfire, released on the 15th June, the game changing record? Yes and no. The album is bigger in sound and ambition, expanding on the debut’s palette of jaunty percussion, carefully incorporated brass and strings and striking harmonies with sparse synth embellishments and a broader compositional approach. The breadth of influences is also expanded from the band’s trad roots to include the soaring, emotive rock of Elbow and The Joy Formidable and even flashes of the electronic retro-indie style of Chvrches or Prides.

Yet the bigger sound somehow makes everything feel smaller, neater and richer. If One, For Words was an artwork defined by its simplicity and carefree hand, Wildfire works into it with deeper shade, darker contrast and a broader, subtler set of colours. Most importantly, it is no less freer nor honest, and the charm, cheek and abundant character of ‘Your Mother’ and ‘The Heights of Lola’ is crackling away, warm and inviting as ever.

Opener ‘Laws’ immediately points to more complex goings-on, with a sweeping piano line preceding a pulsating, layered waltz that is far sadder and more sinister than anything in the Cobblers’ back catalogue. It builds into ‘Win Again’, which takes us deeper into the strangely plaintive landscape that spans the initiating trio of tracks; ‘Won’t Look Back’ exonerates the melancholy with its euphoric, cathartic youth. ‘Wildfire’ exhibits just how far the band have come artistically and technically since the debut EP Scene of Plenty, with a body of vocal sound twisting and turning with fluidity and grace throughout the song. ‘Half Full’ finally finds a recorded home, and live in it it does – simple, heart-wrenching and far cleverer than it seems, it captures everything Cobblers about the Cobblers, and acts as the emotional peak of the record. ‘Sober’ and ‘The Mad’ close things and take us back to the place we started – caught in the crossfire of beauty, sadness and angst.

It’s an assured and confident record, maturer and more secure than One, For Words yet no less refreshing and independently minded. Free from the crippling weight of popular expectation, the Cobblers have found themselves capable of soaring to dizzying heights of creation and innovation. Their music is not easy-listening. It’s simply easy to listen to. It’s effortless.

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