In an age of short attention spans, online outrage over just about anything, and a relentless pace of life, an opportunity to take time out and get off the treadmill becomes increasingly important. The music of The Hedge Schools provides that rare opportunity to breathe out and take stock, or simply immerse yourself in some gorgeous music. Anyone who enjoyed either of the previous Hedge Schools albums, particularly 2015’s At The End Of A Winding Day, will know that Joe Chester and Pat Barrett’s collective is a little bit special. Their band name matches their output, a thing of quality, quietly operating on the margins.
It opens with the title track, a simple drone with Barrett singing “sitting on a ledge wondering how you got there” which perfectly introduces this contemplative work, before gradually it’s joined by piano and a few sweeps of cello courtesy of Vyvienne Long. The busy swirls of Oncoming hide Barrett’s plea for simplicity: “I wish things didn’t change, I wish they stayed the same”. It’s not till the third track, The Undertow that we hear Barrett’s guitar, playing simple arpeggios over a truly uplifting melody, accompanied by Chester’s stately piano. If you’re looking for cynical, world-weariness, look elsewhere. Many of the songs might find you exclaiming “aw” afterwards, particularly the guitars that roll in and out like the tide on April 10. The album is sparse and economic, with few tracks exceeding four minutes. Still, Life features Barrett’s voice and a piano part reminiscent of late Talk Talk, and acres of glorious… space.
If anything, the second half of the album is stronger. A deep, low ratcheting guitar introduces the graceful Morning Bird, joined by a little piano. Here they make every note count, and it’s again somewhat reminiscent of Mark Hollis’ former band. Lighthouse Lights Out is like an old soul tune, played Blue Nile-style at a glacial pace, simple piano chords echoing as if from the bottom of a well. Guitar-led track The Flood, might be the strongest track here, consisting mainly of picked guitars, piano and cello. A meditation on ageing, Barrett sings heartfelt lyrics such as “catch the dimming of the life and the dimming of the light, spend your days just slowing down”, and the whole thing sounds a little like Mark Kozelek from back when he used to write powerful and sensitive songs. There’s real beauty in the plaintive, almost hymn-like Navigate, and a track that calls to mind previous album At The End Of A Winding Day.
Music like this is not designed to fight for attention or compete for affection. But it’s sure to reward repeat listening over the forthcoming months. Sit, listen and enjoy what is sure to be one of the albums of the year for 2018.
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