“Thorns” – Tess of the Circle

4 stars (out of 5)

0

ThornsWell, this is certainly a welcome change of pace to fit in with the British summer arriving at last.  Tess of the Circle is a collective of musicians built around the (confusingly, male) singer/songwriter Tess Jones and, in terms of songs and arrangements, harks back to the classic era of British folk/rock in the seventies.  The songs on “Thorns” are very much in the introspective lyrical mould which first became popular at that time with the success of Carole King and James Taylor and the arrangements vary from solo acoustic fingerpicking and vocal to full group arrangement with drums, bass, keyboards and strings.

“Thorns” is the second album from Tess, following the solo “Magpie” in 2010 and the band assembled for the project all have solid experience of working with well-known performers apart for the guitarist Lee Clifton, who auditioned by dubbing his own guitar parts on to the band’s demos.  While working on an indie label budget, he’s managed to attract some major label players to the project with the strength of his songs and this quality shows in musical settings where the players rely on skill and technique rather than volume and effects to fill out the arrangements.

The album opens with the current single “Better Days” which, after a low-key intro, is driven along by a rhythm pattern from the two strummed acoustics and slightly discordant strings enforcing the lyrical theme of escape and growth.  “Vagabonds and Rogues” is a mid-tempo, mainly acoustic piece leading in to the opening electric riff of “Cracks and Burns”, which demonstrates a slightly different, harder-edged approach to the songs made possible by using the full band.  “Eyes of a Clown” is another introspective acoustic piece, this time filled out by a haunting string arrangement.  “History” is much more uptempo with an intro which vaguely recalls the Divine Comedy’s “National Express”.  I’m guessing that the position of “Lifesong” at the centre of the album is quite deliberate; all of the songs are very good, but this stands out from the very first hearing.  The Latin rhythm patterns of the acoustic guitar intro are emphasised by the piano part and it feels like this is the song where everyone gave it their best shot.  Tess’s voice is powerful throughout, but is really exceptional here and Lee Clifton’s guitar work generally, but particularly the two solos, is stunning.

“Say What You Want (Run)” takes the foot of the pedal a little before “No Place Like Home” where Tess Jones vocal sounds incredibly like Greg Lake (yep, the ELP Greg Lake), featuring yet another lovely guitar solo.  The title track is a gentle, mainly acoustic piece, about a relationship which isn’t quite working, building up to a full band section and an acoustic coda.  The poignant “Mixed Emotions”, with its lilting strings is the penultimate song before the closer, “”Girl in the Window” goes back to Tess’s performing and writing roots with finger-picked acoustic backing and ethereal backing vocals bringing the album to a wistful close.

You can certainly hear the influences on this album; it has a very seventies feel with references to gentle troubadours of that era but there’s also a move towards the raunchier folk feel of Jethro Tull, for example. There are eleven well-crafted songs here which are delivered by incredibly good musicians playing subtle and intricate arrangements.  If you appreciate those qualities, and I certainly do, then you should be listening to “Thorns”.

Out on July 17th on Vintage Voice Records Ltd. (VINVOC005).