The Wynntown Marshals
'The End Of The Golden Age'
(Blue Rose Records, 2015)
Formed in Edinburgh in 2007, The Wynntown Marshals tip their hats to artists like Tom Petty, Neil Young, The Jayhawks and Wilco. Since its formation, the band has supported several world-renowned Americana acts including Marty Stuart, Richmond Fontaine, Jason & The Scorchers, Tift Merritt, John Murry, and, in 2008, toured the UK opening for the influential American singer-songwriter Chuck Prophet.
The Marshals released a self-titled, 6-track studio EP in February 2007 and followed this up with their full-length debut album 'Westerner' - produced by the band and Graham Deas (KT Tunstall, Super Furry Animals) in May 2010.
'Westerner' immediately received universally excellent reviews, including 9/10 from AmericanaUK ("as good as Americana gets") and received 5 stars in Maverick magazine ("quite simply stunning"). The album was also described by renowned Dutch magazine 'Heaven' as "one of the best European Americana records ever", with the celebrated US Americana website NoDepression declaring the album as a strong contender for their 'debut disc of 2010'.
Following the release of 'Westerner', the Marshals were invited to record a live BBC Radio 2 session with the legendary 'Whispering' Bob Harris MBE in July, performing three songs in the studio. Then, in the midst of a headline tour of The Netherlands, the band recorded a national radio session in central Amsterdam for Kink FM's legendary '2 Meter Sessies' at the request of renowned Dutch broadcaster Jan Douwe Kroeske.
The Marshals then released a live EP entitled 'Live At The Holly Tree': a 7-track blast featuring a cover of Neil Young's "Powderfinger", and then followed this up with a live session on 'Another Country with Ricky Ross' on BBC Radio Scotland in June 2011.
From 2011 through to the Winter of 2012, the band split their time between writing the follow-up to 'Westerner', album pre-production, and touring around the UK, The Netherlands and Germany - both as a full-band and as a duo (featuring lead vocalist Keith Benzie and guitarist Iain Sloan).
Their 2013 release 'The Long Haul' was recorded in three short months in the band’s rehearsal space above The Blind Poet, one of the city’s many venerable watering holes. The Marshals took a more DIY approach this time around, recording and mixing the album on a Tascam portastudio.
'The Long Haul' sees the band stretch out a little from the purer Americana sound of 'Westerner'. Organ and piano are more prominent this time round and there are pop hooks aplenty, sitting comfortably alongside more guitar-heavy tracks and subtler, more intimate moments. On two tracks, simple strings are employed to beautiful effect and there is also a sparkling cameo from Diane Christiansen of Chicago-based outfit Dolly Varden on the album closer “Change of Heart”.
The trademarks of the Marshals’ sound – honest and heartfelt lead vocals, the driving guitars, chiming Rickenbacker 12-string, and sweet pedal steel – are still present. The story songs of old are also in attendance; “Curtain Call” is a stripped-down hymn to a ruined Victorian illusionist, while the country-shuffle / sea-shanty of “The Submariner” tells the tale of a modern-day Captain Nemo.
However, line-up changes have brought a new dynamic and a more collaborative approach to songwriting and arrangements, while adding new flavours to the sound too. Listen closely and you’ll hear multi-layered backing vocals, mellotron, banjos and mandolins, echoes of 60s beat-pop, and simpler, more contemporary guitar lines.
Highlights include the hook-laden, radio-friendly “Canada” and the country-rock groove of “Low Country Comedown” - a track inspired by the band’s regular trips to the continent. “Whatever It Takes” shows the band’s more sensitive side, “The Submariner” rolls up-country then dives deep into the ocean. “Tide” is a windblown, Crazy Horse-esque workout, and the aforementioned “Change of Heart” brings the album to a close in epic style (think Neil Young or Tom Petty jamming with a string quartet).
“The Long Haul” speaks of so much more than the path the band have travelled to get to this point. It’s a treatise on journeys past, present and future, an ode to relationships, friendships and family and, ultimately, it’s a soundtrack to our endless search for identity and the road home.
'The band went into the studio again in the second half of 2014 with Andrew Taylor on the console and the same personnel plus new band member Richie Noble on keyboards, to start work on their new album 'The End Of The Golden Age'. With ten convincing tracks it is their most mature and organic, in short their best album to date.
The Wynntown Marshals:
Keith Benzie: Lead Vocals, Acoustic Guitar, Harmonica
Iain Sloan: Electric Guitar, Pedal Steel Guitar, Backing Vocals
Murdoch MacLeod: Bass Guitar, Backing Vocals
Kenny McCabe: Drums, Backing Vocals
Richie Noble: Keyboards
'The End Of The Golden Age' is the third full-length studio album by Edinburgh-based band The Wynntown Marshals. It sees the band drawing on their Scottish roots to give their own uniquely personal take on the Americana genre - the cinematic lyrics on this Caledonian scrapbook tell tales of migrations from Hebridean islands and modern life in the capital city, the sights, smells and sounds of Aberdeenshire fairgrounds, and the rural landscapes of West Lothian.
The music is similarly widescreen in scope and the influences are diverse: the jangling, pile-driving guitars and rich harmonies owing as much to countrymen Teenage Fanclub as to Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers; the use of effects, horns and synths evoking the music of peers such as Jim Bryson and The Weakerthans.
The central themes of the record are those of memories and nostalgia, and there are frequent references to times, people and places past. The lyrics speak of blossoming (and fragmenting) relationships and a yearning for days gone by and are sometimes tinged with regret, but there's also an undeniable, unshakable energy and a healthy undercurrent of optimism which tempers the downbeat subject matter of many of these songs.
'While much of the instrumentation on the album is undeniably 'classic' Americana - the jangle of the 12-string guitar, acoustic and electric guitars interweaving with Hammond organ, aching pedal steel, and plaintive piano - not everything on 'The End Of The Golden Age' fits so comfortably into the genre. Hushed horns, synths, and stacked harmonies add to the often expansive soundscapes on offer here, but the Marshals continue to do what they love most, and do best: lyrically strong guitar-driven pop and rock with plenty of hooks.
Featuring original album art by Tom Gauld (best known for his illustrations for The Guardian and New Yorker Magazine), the cover imagery perfectly encapsulates the organic, melancholic, old-meets-new feel of much of the record.
The tracks: (described by the band)
1. "There Was A Time": "The album opener is a 60s-inflected rocker about the tentative early stages of a relationship and showcases all the elements of the Marshals' refined and road-honed sound - duelling guitars aplenty, a driving backbeat, swirling keys, and killer harmonies".
This first song features wonderful guitars, right from the intro and bountiful waves of organ sound. Keith Benzie has the perfect somewhat raspy voice to sing melodic country rock tracks like this one. "You lived on a street South side of town", who - me? Yes, correct. It also sets the scene lyrically in a very good way.
2. "Dead Sunflowers": "This is a slash-and-burn guitar track which demonstrates the power-pop sensibilities that are apparent throughout the record".
Great song title. Nothing wrong with a convincing straight ahead, boot firmly placed on the monitor, guitar rock track. I love that organ player, he adds the perfect counter point. Keith's vocal, well - this whole song makes me think of our own Dutch hero JW Roy, when he still sang in English. "Those missing years don't really matter at all", great line.
3. "Being Lazy": "Rounding out the unbridled energy of many the songs are the album's more introspective moments, like this heartworn ode to a failed relationship".
"I can sit here on my own / I don't need anyone / I'll read books I'll never finish". Slowing down for a fine semi-acoustic ballad of regret, written by Murdoch MacLeod. More room for interesting instruments, not only utilizing acoustic guitar, but also horns (Bruce Michie forms the one player brass section), pedal steel solos and even glockenspiel in a lovely arrangement. The background vocals are also spot on, the production is crystal clear and the mix flawlessly balanced.
4. "Red Clay Hill": "This track, with its wall of guitars, romanticises a local landmark and features a guest vocal from Hannah Elton-Wall of Redlands Palomino Company".
The smoldering electric guitar demands attention from the get go for a country rock track with a familiar sounding classic melody. "From the top you can see / The runways and lights / From the air traffic tower". The lovely Hannah Eton-Wall from The Redlands Palomino Company graces the walk upon Red Clay Hill with her presence. Organ and pedal steel do a fine job and the track ends with an intriguing soundscape of traffic and an airplane, continuing its flight into number five.
5. "Idaho": "This dusty, reverb-laden track is another more introspective moment on the album".
"Promises, they don't last / Nothing changes / And endless search to know the reason why". A bittersweet slower song, sorrowful pedal steel in beautiful interplay with guitar and piano, creating a gorgeous sonic palette topped off with the soaring chorus. A co-write of Richie and Keith. Highlight!
6. "Better Than Yesterday": "This comes off like an altcountry Replacements, think Country & Westerberg".
"I used to talk to you for hours / On the payphone by the store / Last time I visited my folks / It wasn't even there anymore". Do you see your own favorite payphone from your younger years right in front of you? Then it's a well-written song! I like the oddly frantic rhythm and the youthful energy (think 80s Springsteen) of this track.
7. "The Girl On The Hill": "A eulogy to a friend who died too young".
Bruce Michie's keyboard shines again for a slow sad ballad, before the other instruments join in. The guitars sparkle and the plaintive pedal steel adds to the mystery, what happened to the kind hearted girl our character was in love with? "She had the same name as that Ben Folds song / I'd sing it all the time / I memorised every line".
8. "Metagama": "The Marshals' trademark story songs are present too, in evidence on this almost psychedelic ode to a lost island generation".
Written by Murdoch MacLeod. I noticed the little drawing of a ship under the cryptic lyrics, got curious and looked up this name, the steamship Metagama (launched in 1914) was an impressive ocean liner on the Glasgow to Canada route. The track ends fittingly with the sounds of waves breaking on the beach and sea gulls.
9. "Moby Doll": "Another story song, a plaintive and brooding tale of the first orca in captivity, told from the perspective of a guilt-wracked journalist".
Very nice sequencing of the songs. The epic arrangement underlines the sadness of this 6m12s long story about the lady orca ("I wanted her to disappear..."), building from a piano accompanied narrative into a climax with pulsing rhythm and trumpet, then slowly fading out.
10. "The End Of The Golden Age": The record ends on a high - the title track, again steeped in Scottish imagery, alludes to a relationship that didn't quite go the distance, but the uplifting chorus (which references classic '80s coin-op video games) and deftly-handled instrumentation are resolutely positive".
"It was St. Andrew's Day, you were leaving / I remember it well, you didn't really like that day / I asked you why, you replied 'it means nothing'/ Did you mean us or the celebration of our patron saint?" Fine atmospheric lyrics (I like references to saints) and a catchy melody, reminiscent of work by Sid Griffin's country rock outfits, giving the guitars a good chance to show off once again. A great curtain closer.
This is not the first album by The Wynntown Marshals that I listen to and I still check the spelling of the name always twice. When European bands play typical American music, I'm a bit apprehensive at first. In Scotland they have at least an advantage of the language over the singer-songwriters from continental Europe. No need to worry here, I like this album a lot!
It's obvious that the band benefited from playing lots of live shows, they sound like a tight outfit, ready to rock any stage in Europe or other parts of the world. The classic sounds of country rock: the typical 12-string, the solos, the twin guitar thing and the charismatic lead singer plus soulful harmonies and a steady rhythm section and the wonderful keyboard layers, are adorned with pedal steel, brass and a little bit of mandolin. In other words, The Marshals have their very own sound and their songs are lyrically, with a personal touch, very good too! Besides, for this band it is much easier to tour the continent, as Scotland isn't as far a swimming distance as the U.S.A.!
Written & compiled by Johanna J. Bodde - May 19th, 2015.