“Bonxie” is the Shetland term for the great skua, a migratory seabird described as a “powerful, intimidating and ruthless predator”. At first, I had trouble equating this bully of the natural world with Oxford band Stornoway, whose emotionally charged style of pop / folk is touching and anything but violent. But listening through the band’s third album named after this great bird, their first LP for new label Cooking Vinyl, you feel that it’s not so much about them wanting to ‘eat’ or destroy other bands (which, to be fair, wouldn’t be wrong, considering this is such a dog-eat-dog kind of industry) but instead more indicative of their ambition to be at the top of the heap.
The problem with ‘Bonxie’ as a collection is rooted with their exploring with different styles, with some efforts much more successful than others. This is probably the consequence of their decision to use an outside producer on a studio album for the first time. Gil Norton, mostly famous for working with much harder rock bands such as Foo Fighters and Pixies, was enlisted to work on this album and his work experience no doubt pushed the group beyond their comfort zone. His assistance was funded by the band’s PledgeMusic campaign that has proven so successful, at the time of this writing they’ve already earned well past 500% of their original funding goal.
One big reason why Stornoway are so beloved by their fans is that they’re such incredibly down to earth people and also quite self-deprecating. They can get away with writing a song like ‘Love Song of the Beta Male’: loaded with bright horns and sappy lyrics, it somehow comes across not as wimpy but entirely sweet (“don’t ask me to make you rich or even bring home the bacon / but I’ll cook for you when I’m here and when I’m out on the road / I’ll write sentimental songs about the way you make me feel inside”).
However, I can see where this geeky playfulness might peeve some listeners not familiar with the band’s back catalogue. For all of its handclaps and sprightly gaiety, ‘Lost Youth’ is a bit of a lightweight on record, though I’m sure live it’s a much better prospect. The driving rhythm of ‘When You’re Feeling Gentle’ is awfully catchy but you’re left wondering, is this the same band I was listening to 15 minutes ago? Or did I faff with one of the knobs and accidentally switch on an indie guitar band? Then there are the slower tracks – ‘Sing With Our Senses’, ‘We Were Giants’, ‘Heart of the Great Alone’ – that are certainly sweeping and majestic and deserve praise on their own for their instrumentation alone, but in the song line-up, they create a bottleneck of Laurel Canyon-era excess.
What succeeds best on ‘Bonxie’ are the tracks that take the group back to their roots, to the indie pop and folk gems off their 2010 4AD debut album ‘Beachcomber’s Windowsill’. The LP begins confidently with ‘Between the Saltmarsh and the Sea’, which draws comparisons between a lover and the forces of nature; one can’t help but see a connection in the song’s treatment and with ‘The Coldharbour Road’, and the result is strikingly beautiful. Stripped back with just voices and guitars, the four-part harmony laden ‘Josephine’ is another study in exquisiteness, the lyrical gist the result of cross-pollinating the tale of Rapunzel and hopeless, fatalistic romanticism.
The first taster released to the wild in early January, ‘The Road You Didn’t Take’ is a stunner, taking frontman Brian Briggs’ philosophical cues from older song ‘The Bigger Picture’ (from 2013’s ‘Tales of Terra Firma’ LP) and fully embracing one of Briggs’ major goals on this record – “I wanted a shake up and I wanted to feel more connected to the outdoors – I wanted to feel small” – while channeling American poet Robert Frost. And the outdoors are never too far away when it comes to Stornoway’s music. The press sheet advertises that the calls of over 20 species of bird are featured on ‘Bonxie’, giving the album a unique whimsy. I mean, really, when was the last time you heard so many different birds on a pop record? Birds even feature prominently on the promo video for ‘Get Low’; the message of the song is optimistic, with the insistence that you should never give up your dreams or on love, and seeing the band, let by ornithology doctorate-holding Briggs in an open-top convertible, racing a gaggle of geese as they majestically circle and fly is a sight to behold. Sonically and lyrically, this is the height of ‘Bonxie’.
One thing this new LP from Stornoway definitely does not lack is variety. However, the schizophrenic nature of this mixed bag and its contrasting styles from song to song means this album won’t be for everyone.
‘Bonxie’, Oxford band Stornoway’s third album, is out Monday, the 13th of April, on Cooking Vinyl. Past coverage on Stornoway on TGTF is right this way. The band will begin a new UK tour on the 21st of April in Southampton; they will also perform at Live at Leeds 2015 on the 2nd of May at the Academy in Leeds at 4 PM. A making-of the album type video, narrated by Brian Briggs in their camper van while they were working on the album, is below.