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Tom McRae - From The Lowlands (Album Review)

Friday, 01 March 2013 Written by David Ball
Tom McRae - From The Lowlands (Album Review)

It’s now 13 years since Tom McRae released his self-titled debut album to rave reviews from critics, earning nominations for a Mercury Prize and BRIT along the way. For no clear to understand reason, his 4 albums since then have failed to capture the imagination of the media while lesser talented "singer-songwriters" have gone on to win numerous accolades.

ImageWith 2010’s ‘The Alphabet Of Hurricanes’ McRae released what was, for me his most consistent work since that astonishing debut and he’s followed it with something quite special in his 6th studio album ‘From The Lowlands’, part 2 of ‘The Alphabet Of Hurricanes’. Full of heartbreak he’s back to his very best here with a collection of painfully personal songs.

McRae’s haunting vocal delivery has always demanded a listener’s attention but it has never been given as much space as it has here. With a limited amount of instrumentation throughout, this album is all about McRae’s voice and it’s all the better for it. Having written stories in the past, which may or may not have been based on personal experiences, this album is brutally autobiographical in the same vein as Josh T Pearson’s ‘Last Of The Country Gentlemen’ or Bon Iver’s ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’.

The scene is set by opening tracks ‘Lately’s All I Know’ and ‘Nothing On The Dry Land’, a pair of gently acoustic numbers pushing McRae’s voice to the forefront and grabbing your attention from the off. Later, on ‘Ship Of Blue And Green’, the atmosphere is at it’s most intense musically as his pained lyrics are followed by a simple piano part with added instrumentation giving a subtly epic feeling later on.

‘Fuck You, Prometheus’ is the one song which drifts away from the ‘sad chords’. Recorded outside to the sounds of birds cheerfully twittering away in the background, it’s got a summery feel to it as McRae is accompanied by Brian Wright (who’s ‘Blackbird’ album is well worth looking up). It should feel out of place on an album so bleak but its placement right in the middle of the 9 tracks provides space to breathe and a short respite from the harshness elsewhere.

There’s also what first appears to be an unusual step with a cover of The Beach Boys ‘Sloop John B’ but gone from this version are the jingling bells and high pitched harmonies of the ‘Pet Sounds’ original. Replaced by McRae’s tormented whisper, the lyrics take on a whole new meaning and it becomes an aching plea for escape from a life moving in the wrong direction.

For me the stand out track of the album is ‘All That’s Gone’. Possibly the most sparse song here it tells the tale of a couple full of hopes, dreams and expectation who see everything fall apart under them and turn on each other as they lose their way, "I used to have opinions and I wore them like my clothes, but what seemed like a position turned out to be a pose". In 5 minutes you’re taken through what feels like every emotion McRae’s moved through over the past 15 years or so and the pain is evident throughout. There’s a particularly spine chilling moment when he sings "I apologise for not dying young, or opening up a vein". This is the tale of someone who feels they’ve hit rock bottom and its impossible not to feel moved by it, especially when delivered in such heartfelt fashion.

‘The Alphabet Of Hurricanes’ provides the perfect close to the album, opening with an orchestral string section it gives further insight into a break-up he wants to let go but can’t. "This one’s for the friends I’ve lost and one I left behind. No this one’s not for you, I take it back, I’ve changed my mind". Its chorus enforcing the letting go aspect of a relationship which has come to an end "I will go lightly on my way and you will go lightly on the same". If it’s his final track writing this type of song then it’s the perfect goodbye.

There’s a sense sometimes that music should make you feel happy to be any good but that’s not true. What music should do is make you feel something and I defy anyone to listen to this album and not come away moved by it. This is not an album of songs with manufactured emotion created by a team of writers. This is one man full of hurt laying everything out on the table for the whole world to hear. McRae’s voice is the perfect instrument for delivering these type of songs with his uncanny ability to move from hushed reverie to startlingly high notes to add emphasis where required. A lot of thought has been put into the arrangement of these songs and they’ve got the balance spot on. It’s his best work for more than 10 years, hopefully it finally earns him the respect he thoroughly deserves.

Tom McRae will tour the UK through the Spring. A brilliant live performer the intensity of these songs will be something to behold when played live along with other favourites from his earlier albums. If you’ve never seen him before I urge you to make this your first time, you won’t be disappointed.

'From The Lowlands' is available now via www.tommcrae.com.

Tom McRae UK & Ireland Tour Dates are as follows:

Wed April 17th 2013 - Slade Rooms, Wolverhampton
Thu April 18th 2013 - Pleasance Theatre, Edinburgh
Mon April 22nd 2013 - O2 Academy Oxford, Oxford
Tue April 23rd 2013 - Thekla, Bristol
Wed April 24th 2013 - Komedia, Brighton
Thu April 25th 2013 - York Duchess, York
Sat April 27th 2013 - Plug, The, Sheffield
Sun April 28th 2013 - O2 Academy Liverpool, Liverpool
Thu May 2nd 2013 - Bloomsbury Theatre, London
Sat May 4th 2013 - Phoenix, Exeter
Sun May 5th 2013 - Glee Club, Cardiff
Mon May 6th 2013 - The Sage, Gateshead

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