Erland and the Carnival is a five-piece with a chequered history. Simon Tong played guitar with the Verve and with Damon Albarn in various guises. David Nock played, god help us, in Paul McCartney’s The Fireman. Gawain Erland Cooper, a singer, songwriter and guitarist from Orkney, seems however to carry no baggage, and it is his uniting influence that makes this album more than the sum of its parts.
The first track, Love is a Killing Thing, begins with silence and then a faint whisper of song in the distance, becoming nearer and clearer, resolving into plainsong, a procession of monks approaching to a clicking alarm clock beat. Then another pause, and the song kicks in with Erland’s strong, clear baritone. He conjures up a medieval landscape of love and savagery, the lyrics plain and mournful, repeating a refrain. But the instrumentation builds throughout, driving a wall of buzz guitar around the singer and externalising his desperation. When he emerges again from the maelstrom, he’s telling us “Go dig my grave long wide and deep”. Then the choir return to chant over his corpse. This is an intriguing version of a traditional song onto which Erland have spliced a McColl/Seeger chorus, nailing their early Fairport, freak folk, gently psychedelic colours to the mast.
Second song, ‘My Name is Carnival’, shows you why Erland’s name is exactly that. It’s the most famous song by influential, doomed troubadour, Jackson C. Frank, a minor 60s classic well known to guitar maestros like Bert Jansch. As a reference point, it’s a little too impeccable, but this version is a persuasive rethink. Frank’s recording is haunted, clearly a dance of death rather than a party. Erland have a lot more fun, pimping the tempo with rubber-band bass and Byrds guitar. Frank sings as though this is the last song he’ll ever record, but Erland sounds like they’re about to rush off for a spin on the Waltzers, and after all what’s wrong with that?
‘Trouble in Mind’ could easily have been written by Gruff Rhys, the ultimate tribute for any band seeking to establish their credentials in rainy, acid fuzzed, children’s tv balladry. It may not have the most sophisticated lyrics, but it’s a gorgeous song about regret and things that can’t be undone. Erland and the Carnival make wallowing in the past and in things best forgotten completely irresistible.
The melancholy, chiming lead guitar on ‘Trouble in Mind’ drops a heavy hint about other influences. The psychedelics on display here aren’t just about Beatles and Love; there’s a substantial dose of 80s Manchester and Liverpool sounds in here too. ‘Was You Ever See’ has a lot of The Strands and Coral and about it, and a touch of shoegazing. Could it be that Inspiral Carpets and their forgotten ilk are acceptable influences again? It works beautifully here, a clockwork toy track rattling out a strange organ melody, with lyrics from Blur’s Beetlebum era.
At the heart of the album is The Derby Ram, based on the traditional comic ballad about a giant ram, symbol of Derby, butchered verse by verse. But the lyrics are a bitter account of the 2008 incidence in which a 17-year-old leapt to his death from the top of a car-park in the city centre, after the crowd below had chanted “jump”. It uses reportage, again reminiscent of A Day in the Life, generating unlikely but effective lines such as “The acting chief of the mental health said ‘I can’t condemn this strongly enough’”. The chorus, “If you’ve ever been to Derby, you’ll know the reason why”, is taken from the original ballad but in this context is unlikely to gain Erland the freedom of the city. It is transformed into an angry condemnation of the culture of a place that stands for the whole country. It’s an impressive attempt to recreate the culture of the pre-industrial broadsides, song as urgent vehicles for interpreting current affairs.
Not everything works as well. ‘You Don’t Have to be Lonely’ sounds so like Franz Ferdinand that it could be a cover. It’s not nearly as interesting or inventive as the best songs on the album. ‘The Sweeter the Girl, the Harder I Fall’ clamours for attention, packing in everything at once. But it seems churlish to complain when there’s so much invention here to enjoy, ranging from the eclectic (‘Everything Came Easy’, a song about the Charles van Doren Quiz Show scandal); the inspired (‘Disturbed This Morning’, a Leonard Cohen poem about sex, and ‘The Echoing Green’, words by William Blake); to the downright cheeky ‘One Morning Fair’, a rock-through version of ‘Blackwaterside’, the song made famous by Davey Graham and Bert Jansch and made metal by Jimmy Page.
Erland and the Carnival are at their most entertaining when they’re reinterpreting the past, borrowing and splicing in the best folk tradition to create something entirely their own. Their first album is an ecstatic mix of old, new, borrowed, blue, and it leaves a shimmering, rainbow afterimage.