The Marble Downs


Just four years after their debut album Carbeth (HJR 043CD/LP), Trembling Bells are amassing a formidable body of work at a startling velocity. Just 12 months after the release of their critically-acclaimed third album The Constant Pageant (HJR 055CD/LP), the Glasgow quartet return to share the billing with a similarly restless creative spirit. A few thousand miles separate Will Oldham and Trembling Bells' drummer and principal songwriter Alex Neilson, but their stories intersect as far back as 2005, when the young Leeds-raised Neilson found himself playing drums on Alasdair Roberts' No Earthly Man, with Oldham producing. In time, a friendship between mentor and student became one between two kindred musicians. Neilson augmented his work with free-psych-drone practitioners Directing Hand by playing with the Bonnie "Prince" Billy band. Neilson recalls a conversation about a "collaboration" in the summer of 2010, though stresses that it "was nothing too formal at first." By the end of that year, a limited-edition 7" New Year's Eve Is The Loneliest Night Of The Year showed what an inspired match the vocals of Trembling Bells singer Lavinia Blackwall and Will Oldham made. The cut-glass precision of the classically-trained student of medieval music and the worldly, careworn tones of Oldham created an unlikely chemistry. It must have seemed that way to Neilson too. He set about assembling a cache of songs with the purpose of further harnessing that chemistry. The result is an album that has, once again, redrafted the boundaries of what Trembling Bells can achieve together. Indeed, genre-lines aren't terribly helpful this time around. Yes, Trembling Bells' love affair with traditional music remains a constant -- most emphatically so on the unaccompanied Blackwall/Oldham two-hander, "My Husband's Got No Courage In Him." Then there is Blackwall's musical setting of Dorothy Parker's poem "Excursion Into Assonance" -- and the thorough-going new-found classicism of Neilson's increasingly-assured songwriting. Albeit delivered with Trembling Bells' rain-lashed sense of abandon, "Love Is A Velvet Noose" sounds like a standard of sorts -- a warped consequence of Neilson's increasing fascination with the songbooks of Cole Porter and Hoagy Carmichael. "I Can Tell You're Leaving" finds both vocalists in irresistible form. On the slow-reveal sonic establishing-shot of "I Made A Date (With An Open Vein)," two minutes of manic modal chaos elapses before Oldham takes the narrative reins of a majestic call-and-response folk-rock epic. On "Ain't Nothing Wrong With A Little Longing," Neilson slams down a four-to-the-floor beat over a synergy of demonic Krautrock keys and a dialogue between Oldham and Blackwall that scales Nancy & Lee levels of romantic intrigue. The album's sonic undulations find an arresting denouement in the form of an inspired cover. Adapted from Robin Gibb's 1970 solo masterpiece Robin's Reign, "Lord Bless All" sees Trembling Bells tease out the hymnal qualities of Gibb's original with a slow, volcanic upswell which explodes into heavy psychedelic technicolor. There isn't another band on the planet that quite sounds like Trembling Bells. The CD is housed in a gatefold mini-LP sleeve with a 20-page booklet of lyrics and illustrations.