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Chris Helme – The Rookery
“The upper twigs dip and wobble
With each almost two-point landing,
Then ride to rest. There is nothing
Else to do now only settle.”
- Seamus Heaney, The Rookery
A beautifully orchestrated wilderness country / folk / rock album, ‘The Rookery’ is in this writer’s opinion without a doubt the finest work of Chris Helme’s career, and a standard-setting 2012 release for the roots-orientated York scene of which Chris has long been a cornerstone artist.
A rumination on the difficulty of being “settled” in an unsettled world, the importance of home, and on learning to find sanctuary in those things which one truly hold’s dear to one’s heart, the album returns to the characteristically adult lyrical themes Chris has explored on previous releases. What takes this collection of songs into a more progressive space than has been explored in Chris’ earlier work is the gently acid-spiked watercolour sonic palette in which these themes are presented, and as such much praise is due to producer and Nine Black Alps alum Sam Forrest. Quietly building an impressive back cat of credits on local Num Num Records and Desert Mine releases, Sam has developed a distinctive production style which embraces both the befuzzed Americana stylings of Nine Black Alps’ own lo-fi grunge-pop, and washes of spooked Wicker Man psychedelia inspired by the sprawling North Yorkshire countryside which surrounds his backwater studio.
Anyone who has followed Chris’ career since he first came to national prominence as lead singer of John Squire’s post-Stone Roses Britpop outfit The Seahorses knows that he is in possession of a genuinely great rock ‘n’ soul voice, and it is wonderful to hear this voice harnessed as part of the colorful, patchwork quilt soundscape which has been so artfully sown together here. Draped in the ebb and flow of swirling string arrangements, creaking double-bass, and break-out moments of devilish fuzz guitar, Chris’ lead vocals offer a plaintive, pleading humanity, and are delivered with the firm-footed assuredness of a singer whose voice has from the earliest days of his career always commanded attention.
Finally, what is most immediately impressive about The Rookery is the quality of songwriting, which is uniformly excellent . With the standard of songcraft notably strong throughout, it is worth noting that some 75% of the material Chris had originally earmarked for this release was scrapped during recording – whatever the dissatisfaction with the jettisoned material, the decision was the right one, and speaks to the high-standards that Chris had for this album. Melodies rooted in traditional folk structures are spun into delightful new shapes, while Chris’ ear for a memorable tune remains much in evidence. Writing solid pop hooks is the hardest songwriting trick to master; listeners will find themselves singing along to The Rookery’s many quietly effecting choruses after only one sitting.
It is quite possible that The Rookery will become many people’s favourite release of the year. Fans of Led Zeppelin 3, the extended Byrds/CSN&Y family tree, and the more mature pastoral-pop sound minted on the Coral’s recent work, will find the album very much to their taste. Dark, introspective acoustic passages give way to bursts of over-driven hand-clap power-pop, lilting folk instrumentals rub shoulders with electric raga-rock riffs. Sonically possessing a cohesiveness, playfulness and imagination which makes The Rookery highly listenable, and with strong vocals and song-craft to the fore, this is a charming album which is easy to fall in love with. A wide audience is deserved for what is Chris Helme’s finest release to date.
Paul Lowman, The Inkwell
Release/catalogue number: LNNM10
Release date: Jan 27, 2012