I’m starting this review off on a bit of a tangent, but bear with me, with any luck it’ll all make sense in the end. I saw Alejandro González Iñárritu’s critically acclaimed Birdman this week. I have to confess, I didn’t love the film (much to my esteemed editor’s dismay… he thought it was the dog’s danglies). What did make me wake up and take notice however (asides from Edward Norton’s spectacular hard-on) was the scene in which protagonist Riggan Thomson (played by Michael Keaton) rabidly denounces review writers. To briefly paraphrase, Thomson argued that reviewers and critics need to stop trying to label everything, cease comparing artists to one another, and instead try to understand the processes, techniques and motivations behind the creation of art. Although Keaton/ Thomson was haranguing a particularly snooty film critic in this instance, I reckon there’s a take away lesson for music reviewers here too.
Reviewing Nowhere Near Old Enough, the debut album from Hertfordshire 4-piece Chasing Grace provides an ideal opportunity to put the Birdman’s theory into practice. The band don’t slot neatly into one category or genre so they’re a bloody nightmare to label anyways. And although you could list a plethora of artists that they’re ‘sort of like’ that really would be doing them a disservice.
Discovered by Naughty Boy whilst still at school, Chasing Grace found themselves tucked firmly under the producer’s wing. Now, before you start rolling your eyes, this is in fact a good thing. Rather than churning out another woefully generic and instantly forgettable mainstream folk-pop act, this partnership has instead given the foursome a unique opportunity to breach the void between acoustic folk-pop and the UK’S currently flourishing urban scene. A prime example of this, and my particular favourite, is the band’s 2013 collaboration with socio-political, spoken word artist George the Poet. ‘Around Here’, from their Dinner Will Be Served EP is a bizarre, quirky werewolf-based metaphor for modern life, and I have to confess, I’m slightly gutted that it didn’t make it onto the new album.
The band’s first full length oeuvre Nowhere Near Old Enough, released this week, is pretty damn sweet. Opener, and previous EP release ‘Free’ is all about the harmonies, and the girl/ boy vocal switch-ups between Grace Ackerman and Phil Plested are a pleasure to behold. Continuing in the same vein ‘Even if I Could’ further illustrates just how tight a vocal pairing this is. Ackerman’s soulful melodic style is both complimented and contrasted by Plested more drawling, husky tones, as they take turns to sing both individually and in in perfectly pitched accord.
‘Silence Says it All’ and ‘Another Type of Love’ each bounce along with an upbeat cheerful resolve, and the former is made all the better by guitarist’s Phil Leigh’s acoustic accompaniment, which drops and peaks as the song switches momentum. In complete contrast, ‘Hercules’ is as stripped-back and unadorned as it’s possible to be whilst still making a noise. Leigh’s guitar hooks and the tiniest hint of a piano tinkle brush softly against vocals completely unadulterated by tricks or musical artifice.
Right. How are we doing by the Birdman so far? Well we’ve had a square go at technique, so let’s take a gander at process and motivation. Album number 6 ‘Alice’ is as good a place as any to start. This stand out track explores the album’s overall themes of growing up (it’s worth remembering that these guys were still at school when they started out), youthful innocence and hope, and the hard lessons of learning that things are often far from rosy. Congruous with drummer Matt Holmes perky percussion, and Leigh’s exuberant guitar acoustics, lyrically this is a far darker, more cynical track. The bleak supposition that “There’s no Alice in Wonder and/ there’s no simple way to get to the end” will have listeners nodding in world weary agreement. This juxtaposition of upbeat, ‘bouncing-along like everything’s great’ melody, paired with far less optimistic subject content, is something that co-songwriters Ackerman and Plested have clearly spent considerable time honing.
Another previous EP release ‘Run’ follows, and here focus shifts to the seizing of opportunities, be it in love or in life. Again youthful impulse shines through as Ackerman and Plested urge each other/ the listener to “Leave the world behind’ and “be impossible to find”. Swiftly pushing past ‘Can’t Believe’ (because it does sound worryingly like a track from Naughty Boy’s pal Emilie Sande, and we’re trying not to do comparisons, particularly unflattering ones) the album thankfully revives with ‘Tonight’. Here, a blessed return to harmonious loveliness combine with anthemic, repetitious vocals and fast-paced percussion.
‘Very Little Good’, more soulful and bluesy than previous tracks, sees a change in the front-pair’s usually preferred vocal arrangement, as Plested take’s solo lead throughout. Again, the content matter is dark and introspective. Wailing strings, combine with a single drum beat and the lyrics “There’s very little good here/ you’ve really got to take care of your children” to create an eerie, unnerving listen.‘Lost Time’ utilises a simple series of rather lovely recurrent piano chords as, almost chanting, in a breathy, near whispered round, the duo sing “you’ve found me so keep me/ and swear you won’t leave me”. Again, clever song writing and musical composition paint an emotionally brutal picture of the desperate agony and intense immediacy of young love, laid bare in all its glorious misery.
The album concludes with an acoustic version of ‘Trust’, perhaps an unexpected choice, but certainly a welcome one. Leigh’s unembellished string picking and simple acoustic hooks, accompany a truly special vocal, which drifts along organically before eventually fading into infinite nothingness. If we needed further validation that this band can harmonise, then this is surely it.
So to summarise, Chasing Grace present a surprisingly diverse mash-up of indie pop-rock, acoustic folk, soul and blues, with an occasional urban twist. And they’re kind of like Of Monsters and Men, with a decided air of Mumford, and just a hint of Fleetwood Mac. Sorry Birdman… it’s a bloody hard habit to break.
Nowhere Near Old Enough released on Naughty Boy Records via Universal Island 26th January.