I loved the Heather Findlay era of Mostly Autumn, which lasted until 2010 when she parted company with Bryan Josh and co., and I adored her voice within said band. So, when 'Wild White Horses' turned up for review, her “first true solo outing”, my expectations were high. Perhaps set a little too high, it must be said, as this doesn't shine as much as I presumed and hoped it would. But it is still great in places, I'll add that straight away. However, it's also one of various minor niggles, that've marred its overall affects during my own listening experience.
Thunder guitarist Luke Morely produced the album, arranged all the songs and co-wrote five of them with Findlay (she wrote the other 7 by herself). Morley was also responsible for performing guitars (electric and acoustic); bass; piano; Wurlitzer; Hammond organ; keys; mandolin; recorder; percussion; and some harmony vocals. Dave McCluskey was the man behind the kit, while various other guests contributed to particular tracks, including the notable participation of the ever reliable Troy Donockley with his Uilleann pipes on ‘I Remember’, and Ian Anderson with some flute on ‘Winner’. Sadly, though, it’s all a bit of a mixed bag. The production itself is good enough; nothing overtly fantastic, but it has a decent overall sound and mix. However, the songwriting quality is a tad patchy.
The opening pair of tracks, particularly the second, have a discernible country-folk twang, which isn't necessarily for me. There's nothing inherently bad to he heard here; rather, it's more about being against the grain of my own listening proclivities. Of all the different styles of music I frequently and occasionally delve into, country is the one genre where it has to be something truly great to lure me in. While these initial two tracks might only be country-lite, it's the non-committal nature that perhaps engenders a lack of conviction in the delivery of the compositions that distances me from them.
Findlay’s voice is still great, although she seems to be holding back during most songs. Idiomatic quirks seem to be prioritised over emotional flow; as such, the vocal performance is one of stylistic adherence rather than feeling natural and organic. At least, that's how it comes across to me. Third track, 'The Island', is a lovely piece of songwriting, but it's devoid of any great emotional punch, and Findlay's vibrato, while not histrionic per se, sounds a tad forced.
'Face in the Sun' is a little on the trite side, generically speaking, and, despite some interesting instrumentation and vocal lines, and some more exotic melodies in the instrumentations, plods along in a rather bland, directionless manner, with the jingly jangly acoustic guitar all too dominant and at odds with the vocals themselves (this one most definitely needs more oomph in the vocal department). 'Southern Shores' is a bit more beefed-up in its instrumentation than the preceding songs, with some great backing vocal arrangements, albeit it still sounds like Findlay's holding back on her performance.
More folky flavours arrive in 'I Remember' - a nice enough song and, while it lacks any kind of genuine emotional depth, it does at least make me feel something, and Findlay’s laidback vocals seem to work better over the instrumentation in this one. And the song most certainly benefits from Donockley’s pipes, and is all the better for it.
The title track kicks out a bit more punch, with its galloping rhythms, and Findlay rides those beats with a far more engaging use of her voice, and some very nice vocal lines. One of the highlights of the album, this one. More country flavours, almost Americana shenanigans appear within 'Winner' and this one is, indeed, a winner. Some pacing diversity certainly helps here, as it switches from down to up-tempo in the blink of an eye.
Country-folk flavours rear their head once again in 'Already Free', which offers nothing outstanding, but is certainly a step above tracks of similar ilk on the album. 'Cactus' offers up more Americana on what is another great track. And penultimate number, 'Firefly', is a rather lovely through its delicate minimalism; a beautiful vocal/piano piece. And here are the emotions in Findlay's voices, as she cranks up the affective intensities in her delivery. Closing out the album, 'Forget the Rain' is a nice enough climax, with its folk rock impetus, but isn't anything particularly outstanding or memorable.
I expected much more from this, I honestly did. As such, the album all too frequently dips into blandness and "safe" territory, which, when mixed in with some much more engaging compositions, makes 'Wild White Horses' a very uneven listening experience. Undoubtedly as uneven an experience as riding a wild white horse, the material on 'Wild White Horses' ranges from the banal, to the okay, to the good to the very good, and with a few too many niggly quirks along the way. To be honest, there are as many great tracks and vocal performances as those that are bland, plodding and forgettable. A track skipper, for sure. Approach with caution!
Black Sand Records
WILD WHITE HORSES
Review by Mark Holmes
5th July 2019
1) Here's To You
2) Just a Woman
3) The Island; 4) Face in the Sun
5) Southern Shores
6) I Remember
7) Wild White Horses
9) Already Free
12) Forget the Rain
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN:
"Undoubtedly as uneven an experience as riding a wild white horse, the material on 'Wild White Horses' ranges from the banal, to the okay, to the good to the very good, and with a few too many niggly quirks along the way."