As a drummer, Alex Neilson has spent plenty of time around songwriters like Alasdair Roberts, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Jandek and David Tibet. You might love or hate their work, but you’re not likely to confuse it with anyone else’s. But Trembling Bells, Neilson’s own debut as a straight-up songwriter, cribs from other notebooks. He’s drawn on his personal immersion in the United Kingdon’s folk traditions and the example of bands like Fairport Convention, the Albion Band, and Steeleye Span, which all struggled with the quandary of loving music from the past and wanting to make a mark on the present.
Neilson’s solution to this age-old folk rock dilemma is to shuffle a couple traditional aces – particularly keyboardist Lavinia Blackwall’s broad, vibrato-laden singing, but also melodic ideas rooted in the common soil of country music and Scottish ballads – into a fairly contemporary but unlikely to perish deck. The backing doesn’t lapse into the sort of rapidly dating production that sank so much late ’70s and ’80s folk-rock; you know, fretless basses and bleakly bad synth sounds. Neither bassist Simon Shaw nor guitarist Ben Reynolds are the sort of musicians who play flavor of the month licks, and in this band they don’t do a lot to make you think they should take over the band, either. Reynolds gets a few short, hot licks in, but for the most part the strings support the singing.
Blackwall dominates, which is mostly a good thing. She has the sort of big, supple voice that, like Maddy Prior or Sandy Denny, parts all manner of accompaniment and sales serenely through. The only fault I can find is a one-size-fits-all quality. If a song calls for Size Small gestures, she’ll still drape it with an XL delivery. Neilson’s own voice is more wayward and struggles to scale the dramatic heights that the songs require, but it has a lot of promise.
Likewise the songs hit a sweet spot; their catchy and sound stirring, but the words don’t register the sort of obvious brilliance that Richard Thompson sustained in the early-to-mid-’70s or that Alasdair Roberts recently reached on Spoils. This is a record that makes me hope for even better things to come.