Although The Memory Band have released two previous albums, they are best known for their live performances of the ‘Wicker Man’ soundtrack. Founded by guitarist Stephen Cracknell, the band has evolved to the extent that 20 different musicians play on ‘Oh My Days’. Appropriating the ‘Wicker Man’ music was a masterstroke. Paul Giovanni’s songs were recorded by a one-off outfit called Magnet, assembled for the occasion, and had therefore never been heard live. Playing alongside screenings of the film, the Memory Band tapped the very source of the acid folk boom and became festival favourites.
It’s a tough challenge to move on from some of most famous and memorable music of its kind, and carve out new territory. ‘Oh My Days’ is an explicit attempt to change direction and sound, with a press release that list all the music that influences them, including gospel and Laurel Canyon rock. Alarm bells start to sound at all this protestation, and they get louder after when the second track, ‘New Skin’, kicks in. After an opening, Grizzly Bear-esque instrumental called ‘Crow’, we’re right in Laurel Canyon territory. Banjo accompanies an intensely harmonised declaration “New start, new beats, new heart, new skin”. “A new day” is apparently dawning. The track is relentlessly upbeat, defibrillated from a gurney in a 1968 Hollywood Hills funeral parlour. It’s an expert pastiche, carefully crafted, and the sound is pure Canyon. The band prove beyond a doubt that they can play, and that they have more than just folk in their collections, but they fail to show why that should matter. The next track, ‘Run River Run’, deepens the misgivings. It’s precisely what Crosby, Stills and Nash would have sounded like had they been women, and temperamentally capable of singing “put on your dancing shoes”.
And this, unfortunately, is the theme of the whole album. There’s no doubting the musicianship, and ‘Blackberry Way’ for example contains some pleasing liquid electric guitar and a persuasive, gentle vibe. But it won’t be supplanting the Move track of the same name anytime soon. The songs slip easily into anonymity, resting on the same throwback tempos and faux-naïve, faux-60s lyrics. ‘Apples’, a particular offender, is packed with lines such as “Will I ever find the key? Will the apples be for me?” Meanwhile, ‘Love is the Law’, a Graham Bond cover, has plaintive Byrds guitar and male-female Mamas and Papas dueting down to a ‘T’. This is pure pastiche, but performed with a straight face.
A couple of tracks rise from the morass, and seem to come from a different album. ‘Come Wander With Me’, a cover of Jeff Alexander’s ‘Twilight Zone’ song, has a brooding fiddle line and a controlled yet hysterical vocal which delivers lyrics of sinister ambiguity, about an invitation which sounds more like a threat. ‘By the Time it Gets Dark’ is a Sandy Denny cover with a tension between its pretty tune and threat of bad times just around the corner.
In achieving their apparent objective – new band, new tunes, new future – The Memory Band appear misguided. Recreating an era of music so dependent on time and place is a self-defeating mission, surely doomed to produce sub-par tribute songs. It also echoes the early, faltering days of the English folk rock movement when bands did not completely trust their material and covered their exploration of traditional music with blues and Bob Dylan covers. As groups such as Fairport Convention realised where their strengths lay, they dropped the blues and recorded music of real originality that could only have played by them. The Memory Band seems to have reversed the process and in doing become trapped in a world of diminishing returns.
‘Oh My Days’ is comfortable and undemanding, ultimately self-indulgent and lacking in purpose. It’s the sound of a band failing to locate their musical rationale.