When a member of an established band launches their solo career, there’s a key decision to be made. Do they play it safe and do a lightweight, one man version of the band that made them famous; or do they go off in a new direction altogether, distancing themselves from the sound that fans know them for? Lee Southall, known to most as the one-time guitarist with 2000’s indie-rockers The Coral, has clearly chosen the latter. Rather than giving a sketchy approximation of his old band, Southall has instead gone in a whole new direction with his solo debut album ‘Iron In The Fire’.
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Set to a bucolic landscape of acoustic guitars, cellos and a warm, crackling-fireside ambience, ‘Iron In The Fire’ is a record embedded in a radically different musical landscape to any of his previous work. As with much contemporary folk-rock, comparisons to the ascended masters of the style (Drake, Jansch, Martyn etc) are tempting but, in this case, ultimately misleading. ‘Iron In The Fire’ is not a retro record; the production is slick and contemporary, not even trying to facsimilate the innate grit in many of the genre’s revered ’70s records. Although the instruments on display here might be ancient, ‘Iron In The Fire’ unmistakably feels like a product of the modern age. There are nods to some of the genre’s long term favourites, certainly, but to typecast the album as yet another old-school-folk-revival album is misleading and doesn’t allow it to exist on it’s own terms.
If reference points have to be drawn, it’s perhaps more fruitful to liken the album to some of the genre’s more recent mainstays. The close overdubbed harmonies of the title track inescapably bring to mind the rustic clarity of early Fleet Foxes, and at times the album isn’t even that far off the pastoral elegance of Iron & Wine. The album’s more sprightly moments do at times bring to mind the urgent folk-rock of acoustic Led Zeppelin, though, so it’s not an album that severs all ties with the musical past.
‘Iron In The Fire’ is a nicely recorded album and although it could at times it could benefit from a little more dirt under it’s fingernails, there’s a charming singsong chime to the guitars and an airy balance to the arrangements. It’s a consistent set of songs – nicely balanced at 40-odd minutes and 11 tracks – but it nonetheless does have a clutch of standouts. The moody ‘Under The Weather’ boasts a more dramatic presentation than the album’s usual placidity, and it works well. The jaunty, spring-heeled bounce of ‘Spread Your Wings’, meanwhile, is no less of a change of pace, just one that goes in a totally different direction. The swirling atmosphere of ‘Above The Storm’, on the other hand, is one bolstered no end by a coolly understated lead guitar part.
‘Iron In The Fire’ is a well made folk record that doesn’t set out to rewrite the rule book but does a really solid job of what it sets out to achieve. It’s not a record full of challenge and it doesn’t demand your attention – rather, it’s an album that seeks to create an atmosphere and allow the listen to wander through it, unperturbed, at their own pace.