A single muted guitar announces ‘Victory’, the first song on Garden Of England, the debut album by The Flowing. Then comes a hopeful declaration: ‘I am now marching to the beat of a drum. We must question every answer on the edge of a loaded gun’. Then in come more guitars chiming like droplets of light. And so it goes for three verses until something extraordinary happens. Dave Pickett’s vocal is met with multi-layered harmonies from French artist Agathe Peyrat which build gently into close, Disneyesque intervals. Suddenly we’re listening in Technicolor.
A word of explanation is required at this point. The Flowing can be configured in many ways. Sometimes it’s just Dave. Sometimes it’s Dave with Dan on guitar and Rich on Bass. On the album, and at more recent gigs, we also have Sophie on vocals, John on trumpet and Pete on flute and harmonica. Agathe appears on three songs courtesy of the freedom and flexibility the internet affords like-minded artists, and this brings us to the actual recording of the album. It’s a home-made affair and it shows, but in a good way.
Rather than being recorded in an unfamiliar studio environment, the album has clearly been recorded in different places (you can hear this in the disparity of EQ at times, but only just) and allowed to evolve at its own pace without constraint or too much production. Roses in the back yard don’t grow if you don’t put in the time, you know.
Back to the music. The songs are new but their roots are old, stemming from the blues and folk traditions. They are more often than not built on a foundation of Dave’s solid and studied finger picking skills, which make him very much a guitarist’s guitarist for rendering the complex as though it were almost effortless.
Such is the link with tradition that in this reviewer’s imagined parallel universe, Bob Dylan has stepped outside of time, heard ‘All Your Love’ (track 4) and covered it on ‘World Gone Wrong’. That said, The Flowing sound completely contemporary at the same time as all of this. The music has arrived in Medway via a youth spent listening to Bob Marley, or so it seems, yet has unquestionably been brewed with water from the River Medway itself.
There are a number of stand out songs on Garden Of England, and ‘Cast Out’ is one of them. What begins as a ringing, swinging, Spanish tinged full-blown affair melts away at its halfway point into a beautiful refrain that one can imagine an audience singing and swaying to long after the band has left the stage. It is probably this song that showcases Sophie’s backing vocals to the greatest effect, as they cushion Dave’s lead whilst cleverly matching every nuance of his vowel sounds, rather like Cara Tivey’s work with Billy Bragg.
Moving through ‘Ghosts’, with its hint of a Grapefruit Moon and perhaps a desire to grow from its current two and a half minute instrumental form into something bigger, and ‘Cm’, a live favourite and a modern fable (‘I know you well and I can tell’) set to a galloping, widescreen spaghetti western backdrop with delicious trumpets and notes of flute, we arrive at what might be the centrepiece of the album.
‘Hold On’ is a piece of craftsmanlike songwriting, and we find it at what, in old money, would be the end of side 1 or the beginning of side 2. Certainly, it’s the point where something changes and the album intensifies. Hold on indeed, as Agathe’s harmonies return and tell of “… the fading glory of an English town … from blood and stone she is made” in a way that crystallises perfectly the time and place from which this album originates.
The foreboding and funereal ‘Black Friday’ follows, and gives way to another live favourite, ‘From Here’. A glorious accordion leads into a campfire song sung at the end of long, shared journey. Dave and Sophie sound like an old couple who have shared such a journey. Simple and beautiful.
Lions is next. The pretty guitar, a jazzy variation on elements of ‘Greensleaves’, ‘Scarborough Fair’ and ‘Silent Night’ at first, gives way to a haunting, crackling orchestration that sounds half a century old. The listener has just two minutes to assimilate all of this before they can relax into ‘Tori’, which begins in the Bay of Naples and follows its marble skinned subject in a flamenco dress from the distance of memory and loss.
This is one of the most adventurous arrangements on the album, building gracefully from a single acoustic guitar, through raindrops of Fender Rhodes piano to a swelling crescendo of slightly manic plucked strings, wind and brass. Then follows another short allegorical piece, ‘Seaship’, in which Agathe’s harmonies evoke the Trio Bulgarka and sound like the song of the siren. You’ll be putting that one on repeat play at some point.
It’s getting very near the end now, and when title track Garden of England begins with its upbeat tempo and reassuringly familiar chord progression with playful disingenuity, the listener could be forgiven for thinking the ride home is going to be an easy one. There’s “…nothing peculiar here. Just smoke without fire”. Hmm. So people drowning in a lake and crawling back out and cathedrals lit like circuses aren’t at all peculiar. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe this is the album’s centrepiece.
The track fades out and you could be forgiven for thinking that’s it. But then comes ‘In My Longing’. At first it feels like a bonus track, or like it’s in the wrong place, but it isn’t. Firstly, that accordion deserved another outing and it’s a joy to hear. More importantly, an album which began with hope is now ending with a song about not being afraid to die, and the listener is left wondering what visions are shared in some the album’s more difficult allegories.
This is a transcendental album that at times immerses the listener in the darkest and most beautiful of folk stories. It sounds like nobody else, has enough beauty and depth to last the listener a lifetime and every home should have one. You can download it from CD Baby or iTunes or buy a CD at a gig. I strongly recommend that you do one or the other.
Photograph (c) Phil Dillon