Being an ‘events blogger’, I imagined at the end of Folkstock Festival and its post-event buzz that I would log off and submit my Folkstock Festival Musical Notes to the cyber pages of internet history. An archive of reviews and ramblings, pretty pictures and ever less impressive video qualities (Youtube videos of tomorrow are going to project life-sized, holographic images of bands directly into my bedroom so that I can go to a gig without so much as moving my hand to wipe the drool from my ever fresh-air depraved mouth, right?) that would serve as a good point of reference for all involved to see how far they’ve all come – artists, Folkstock brand and all.
But as my blog’s lain dormant, the Folkstock community has remained very much alive and kicking in the heart of …well, Hertfordshire (too much?) and as I’ve tagged along for the ride; dropping in and out of the local music scene at various stages of its bubbling progression – much the same as I did over the festival period itself – my blogging fingers have itched to dance over a laptop keyboard to the catchy melodies that have surfaced over the last few months; attempting to articulate with words alone the talent that I’ve seen growing.
However, it can be daunting to try and capture the passion and inspiration that flows out of guitars, vocal harmonies and lyrical genius on the pages of a website; and quite frankly, I didn’t really have a clue whether I was doing it right the first time around!
But the Krakatoa moment in my music blogging ‘career’ came last weekend, Saturday 8th March, as Nick and The Sun Machine’s debut album Wide Lying Smiles burst onto the scene.
From my seat in the dark corner of the Alban Arena stalls, subtly trying to peer around the couple next to me that were caught up in a mood far too physical to have been ignited by the electric opening chords of ‘Acid Rain Clouds’ (however exciting the immediate burst of music may be!), the energy and flawless musical chemistry that came from the stage for the entirety of Nick and The Sun Machine’s set moved me. So much so, that I knew I was going to have to write about the experience.
In fact, the beauty of the album is it, in itself, delivers an experience – stepping away from the atmosphere of a live gig, the smooth quality of the sounds in the album recording easily allow you to drift into a relaxed state of listening; an eclectic mix of rock, pop, and folk, each track manages to flow seamlessly into one another, yet still deliver melodic surprises.
I picked up my copy of the album on my way into the St Albans Arena gig, instantly intrigued by the artwork. Created by St Albans local (and Bass player Joe White’s brother) George White; the cover shows an eye-catching pattern of psychedelic colours overlaying an image of a 16th century Memento Mori pendant: a symbolic reminder of mortality; that we are just flesh and bone.
It was hard to gauge from the curious but modish album cover what kind of sound, or even genre, the music of the album would reveal itself to be. I’d already bought a copy of the acoustic teaser release; Quiet Lying Smiles from a gig at Trestle Arts Base some weeks ago, but the tracks definitely sound somewhat different to the clear-cut, high quality sound of the rock/folk/pop influences at play in Wide Lying Smiles.
So from my chair in the familiar dark surrounds of the Alban Arena, I waited anxiously for the notes of the new album to prove themselves. I already had the CD in my bag; now it was up to Nick and The Sun Machine to convince me that I actually needed to listen to it after tonight.
Having recorded the debut album from April to June of last year, I’m sure the four-piece band – Nick Stephenson (Vocals), Simon Hadwin (Drums), Joe White (Bass) and Michael Scott (Guitar/Keyboard) – were feeling a mix of excitement and pressure as they began to play; marking the official launch of the album in front of a home crowd – but if they did, it didn’t show.
Resonating through the auditorium, the up tempo ‘Acid Rain Clouds’ was the perfect introduction to the evening. Unfolding to allow each member of the band to present their talents, and lead singer Nick Stephenson the chance to flawlessly showcase the smooth tones to his voice, I wasn’t surprised to learn afterwards that this is Nick’s favourite recording on the album. Other than reminding him of a happy time creatively (which shows in the way he performs it) Nick explains “the arrangement by the rest of the band takes it somewhere I would not have envisaged initially… that’s why we are a ‘band’ as opposed to a singer with backing musicians”.
‘Ask Me For My Name’ and ‘Baby A’ were among the crowd-pleasing tracks that followed, but the pinnacle of the evening for me came with the change in pace and atmosphere that ‘White Chalk’ brought with it. The haunting acapella harmonies that make up the first few bars of the song were spine-tingling as they echoed out through the venue, making the performance seem all the more intimate than before. Given how distinct this song is, I was pleased to find it’s the opening track of the album.
The real gem in Nick and The Sun Machine’s song writing crown however, (can you put crowns on sun machines? Do songwriters even get given crowns – or do they just shack up with Drew Barrymore and sleep under pianos like that average yet pleasant Hugh Grant film? … I diverge…) was the brand new and (as yet) unrecorded song; ‘One Thing’. With an edgier rock feel and an undeniably strong rhythm, this seemed to the song most people were discussing in the foyer afterwards.
Concluding with ‘Fast Learner’, Nick & The Sun Machine ended the set to rapturous applause, and the kind of support that makes me so fond of St Albans – though I have no doubt they would have (and will) provoke the same reaction elsewhere.
I thought about Nick Stephenson’s words that many of the album’s songs were penned in a creatively rich period ignited by listening to the album ‘Let England Shake’ by PJ Harvey:
“… I heard that and thought it was one of the most powerful records I’d heard in years, and it just set me off writing most of these songs – it influenced not ‘how’ we sound but more the thing that drove the writing,” he’d explained;
and I found myself concentrating harder for the signs that Blur, Jane’s Addiction, Wild Beasts, The Beatles and Beach Boys were also all creative influences for this album, as I listened to it for the second and third time on my journey home.
Oh yeah, and something about Toploader.
‘Wide Lying Smiles’ is now out. More info can be found at http://www.nickandthesunmachine.co.uk