Sometimes, as a fan of contemporary approaches roots music, one has moments where they really long for the time when pioneers like Alison Krauss, Kate Rusby, Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings were regularly releasing new music, and it wasn’t called a comeback. Nowadays that style of music feels a little archaic when compared to their successors – compulsive innovators like Chris Thile, Sarah Jarosz, The Staves and Red River Dialect. Occasionally, however, a band comes along that captures the nostalgic feeling of those originators in a way that makes the style feel fresh. Transatlantic roots duo, A Different Thread, is one of those bands.
Due to the origins of its members – Robert Jackson from Staffordshire and Alicia Best from North Carolina – the band’s style lands somewhere between other recent ‘call-back’ musicians, like North East England’s Megson, and Nashville’s Caitlin Canty. If you’ll permit a brief diversion into the discussion of genre labels, then it’s worth mentioning that the band have labelled their music (perhaps somewhat unfortunately as it sounds rather colonial) as “British-Americana”. In reality, the songs on On A Whim tend to skew heavily in one direction or another (either British folk ballads or Alison Krauss-esque Country) with some added stylistic elements from across the Atlantic. This is by no means a bad thing; the aesthetic alterations make A Different Thread’s brand of nostalgic song-writing feel fresh and exciting, but it doesn’t feel like their self-ascribed label is all that accurate of a descriptor for the band.
As for the song-writing itself, there’s a lot to love on this debut record, but it is just that – a debut. There isn’t a great deal of cohesion across the 12 tracks, despite the general high quality of lyricism, song-structure and instrumental arrangement. Songs like the dark, bluesy ‘Charlotte’, and the jazz-tinged ‘Chairs Instead’, whilst being wonderful to listen to (particularly the latter, with its soulful chord progression and gorgeous, fluid flugelhorn line), stand out somewhat uncomfortably from the rest of the tracklist all of which have more of a singer-songwriter vibe to them.
That being said, there was only one track on the album that wasn’t thoroughly enjoyable. A lot of that has to do with the wonderful vocal performances from Jackson and Best. Jackson has a thick croon to his voice, while Best is a little raspier, and that contrast in tone works remarkably well. The pair say they gelled pretty much instantly after busking together as strangers on a street in Ireland and listening to them sing together makes that story believable as their chemistry is immediately apparent – one almost feels as if they’ve been singing together all their lives.
Best gets her Kate Rusby moment on the arresting, stripped back ‘Potters Field’. Its gorgeous, English folk melody and deep, bowed bass is augmented by Americana vocal inflections and flatpicked guitar accompaniment. ‘Hold Me Down’ sees Jackson belting passionately to a bluegrass romp complete with stellar fiddle, banjo and mandolin playing as well as powerful vocal harmonies from Best. As much as ‘Chairs Instead’ feels stylistically out of place, it’s a beautiful song with stunning instrumental work, and charming lyrics about making something out of the broken pieces of a past relationship. The flugelhorn solo is a poignant midpoint to the song and one of the album’s more transcendent moments.
The one moment during the listening experience of On A Whim that was less enjoyable was ‘High Time’. Here, A Different Thread take the opportunity to head in a pop-country direction, more akin to Mumford and Sons than anything else. It just feels a little melodically and harmonically generic, a quality that is not made up for by the song’s vague, fairly uninteresting lyrics.
All in all, On A Whim, is a solid debut for a band with an intriguing take on nostalgic roots music. There is an issue with stylistic cohesion which A Different Thread may wish to address before their next release; there’s absolutely nothing inherently wrong with going outside your wheelhouse for a track or two, as long as there’s some sort of musical or thematic thread that can be drawn between them and the rest of the album. The song-writing, however is consistently lovely across the record and the infusion of elements of both British and American traditional music is a welcome supplement to that. On A Whim is well worth a listen, particularly if you tend to look, wistfully, back on the work of the band’s influences, longing for something new.