Release Date: May 19, 2014
Record label: Full Time Hobby
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
Eponymous albums that occur mid-career usually signal a sea change of sorts, and while Smoke Fairies' fourth long-player doesn't deviate completely from the sultry blend of metropolitan English folk, Delta-by-way-of-the-Thames blues-rock, and overcast dream pop that Jessica Davies and Katherine Blamire have been honing since their 2007 debut, it's by far the most singular set of songs to be conjured by the duo thus far. The pair admit to questioning the band's validity after 2012's uneven Blood Speaks, even going so far as to consider closing up shop, but as Davies so succinctly states on the opening track "We've Seen Birds," a sort of apology to Blamire for losing faith, "I like to keep it moving, I'd be lost without you by my side. " It's a good thing too, as Smoke Fairies have never sounded more sure of themselves, even as they move toward a more esoteric yet decidedly more commercial art-pop style.
That T Bone Burnett didn’t include a tune from the fourth album by Smoke Fairies on soundtrack for recent freaky detective TV programme True Detective is a crying shame, because British spook-folk duo Jessica Davies and Katherine Blamire are at their unsettling and atmospheric best here. ‘Shadow Inversions’ pulses with a bleak beauty and ‘Your Own Silent Movie’ is gentle and hypnotic, but there’s more to it than Sandy Denny and Kate Bush impressions. The pair embrace pop on ‘We’ve Seen Birds’, so much so you can picture Beyoncé belting out the closing piano ballad ‘Are You Crazy?’ with its passionate calls to “put your headphones on”.
This eponymous album marks a welcome return for Smoke Fairies, albeit one that nearly didn’t happen. After the release of 2012’s Blood Speaks, Jessica Davies told fellow Smoke Fairy Katherine Blamire that she wasn’t sure that they should continue with their endeavours. It is hard to make a living as a musician at the best of times, but even after well received albums and support slots with Bryan Ferry and Laura Marling, the pair still had to find time for music alongside making ends meet with temp jobs.
There has always been something quite enticing about music that delves into the realms of the ethereal. Esoteric crooners like Kate Bush, Annie Clark of St Vincent and more recently Stealing Sheep have all done pretty well in touching on that part of the brain that yearns for something a little out of the ordinary. Something that makes you feel that you’re tumbling down the rabbit hole with Alice into Wonderland, or that the Cottingley fairies are actually real and might just pop into the garden for a quick hello.
The self-titled fourth full length from Smoke Fairies, and their first for Full Time Hobby, is a step forward for the duo, and a decided shift in aesthetic. A band once known for their folk and blues references, Katherine Blamire and Jessica Davies have made these points more vague than in their earlier work. What they have instead is something more atmospheric, and decidedly lacking in any and all kinds of twang.
A few years ago, UK-based Smoke Fairies released the enchanting Through the Lowlight and the Trees, a darkly engrossing album. It was filled with songs that tempted and repulsed, based around haunting lyrics and captivating harmonies. It seems that the four years between Through the Lowlight and the Trees and their new, self-titled, release have tamed Smoke Fairies.
Over the course of three albums and numerous singles, Smoke Fairies have created a haunting fusion of delta blues, English folk and medieval plainsong, a unique sound world that gradually seduces the listener into a state of slightly awed acquiescence (well, this listener anyway). But as the refreshingly candid press release that accompanies their latest album makes plain, Jessica Davies and Katherine Blamire underwent a serious period of self-doubt and re-evaluation before making it, wondering whether they shouldn't just throw the towel in. On the face of it, their career got off to a great start, with early patronage from Jack White, a major label deal, and subsequent tours with Bryan Ferry, Richard Hawley and Laura Marling.
Shorter lifespans make for better bands, so goes the theory: is it better to burn out than to be Coldplay? Even so, when a band bows out at the peak of its powers, it’s often hard to fathom why – and, amid the acclaim for 2012?s excellent Blood Speaks, no-one realised that Smoke Fairies were in danger of dissipating. Fortunately, Jessica Davies decided her itchy feet had found crossroads, not the end of the road, and the London-based duo’s return is as assured and unfailing as ever. Album opener “We’ve Seen Birds” gifts an instant lift, taking allegorical flight after a wink at “Sadness is a Blessing” in the opening bars.