Chirpy inspiration

Oxford foursome Stornoway draw ideas from birds in their third and best album yet

Indie band Stornoway comprise (from left) bassist Oliver Steadman; singer, lyricist and guitarist Brian Briggs, drummer Rob Steadman and keyboard player Jon Ouin.
Indie band Stornoway comprise (from left) bassist Oliver Steadman; singer, lyricist and guitarist Brian Briggs, drummer Rob Steadman and keyboard player Jon Ouin.PHOTO: COOKING VINYL

You have to thank serendipity for life's unexpected gifts.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in Hay-on-Wye, a quaint Welsh town adjacent to the English border, to attend the annual literature festival in Wales, the Hay Festival.

There were big-name authors such as Kazuo Ishiguro and Germaine Greer, but the highlight for me was catching an evening gig by the Oxford quartet Stornoway - and it wasn't even held at the Hay Festival itself.

It was at a rival event, How The Light Gets In, a philosophy and music shindig. We were huddled into a Mongolian yurt and then, there they were - singer and doctor of ornithology Brian Briggs, keyboardist Jon Ouin, bassist Oliver Steadman and his brother, drummer Rob Steadman.

They were performing tracks from their third album, Bonxie, which is a nickname for the great skua, a Hebridean seabird. In between songs, Briggs played samples of bird song, which chuffed the audience to bits.

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Witnessing the album performed live was a treat. Relistening to each track now invokes fuzzy feelings.

"Keep dreaming, gotta play to be in the game," they sing in unison in Get Low, a lift-me-up anthem lit with jaunty guitars and drums and, surprise, a sizzling synth line.

They are nature-obsessed - spot 20 samples of bird calls on the record. At the same time, the guys also expand their, ahem, wings to include a technological future.

Between The Saltmarsh And The Sea opens with a ship horn and sea birds chirping, followed by a zealous canister of steel drums and electronic thingamajigs.

Nature isn't all pretty, of course. It's survival of the fittest as Briggs hints at nature's savagery: "And when you leave, you will leave me exposed/And the birds will descend on my nerves again."

Similarly, When You're Feeling Gentle doesn't sound like what the title suggests, riding instead on an electric guitar riff, going jangly as if it's Britpop all over again.

Love Song Of The Beta Male is an exquisitely po-faced testament of a male suitor who doesn't want "to sweep you up and carry you across the threshold". The music is barn-rock-friendly, stomping, singalong, utterly infectious.

When Stornoway go beautifully bucolic, they are still nonpareil.

Josephine, a paean to a paramour, is sung largely a cappella and you fall under the spell of the foursome's harmonising.

The Road You Didn't Take, a lament on opportunities lost and ambitions forgotten, stills the air and makes you gasp. "You will see another hill to climb," goes a line as the guitars are strummed like a cascade of waterfall.

A companion piece is They Were Giants, an ode to an Arcadia, or a dream once held.

"Tell me of the time we could walk for miles, on a road to nowhere/Tell me of the time we were happy as we staggered through the fields," Briggs croons, the strings swelling behind him as if heralding a sunrise.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 18, 2015, with the headline 'Chirpy inspiration'. Subscribe