Ok, so imagine you are a singer-songwriter and you play guitar. You've written a bunch of songs that you think would sit well together as an album but you want to make it sound a bit different this time.
In July 2010, the Northern Ireland based songwriter Tom McShane decided that his next album would made in a different way. He assembled some musicians to play his new songs, but instead of laying down tracks over a few weeks or months, he opted to record them as an ensemble, with a small live audience invited to the studio to make it more of an event.
Now, two years later, the results see the light of day on a recording compiled from two studio sessions that day, which bristles with a life and vivacity that could only have been achieved from this method.
The title The Ural Winter conjures up all sorts of bleak images, and although the music is downbeat and reflective, it has a warmth that comes about largely because of how it has been recorded and performed. The overall vibe is reminiscent of classic rock n roll or jazz recordings. When I reviewed the Geoff Farina record earlier this year I said that Farina was using 1920s guitar techniques with modern songwriting. In this case Tom McShane is using 1950s recording methods with modern songwriting.
This isn't a solo album though, and there is a big cast assembled here. Thirteen musicians take part, and although the band is dominated by guitar, drums and piano, there are some great horn and string arrangements which complement the songwriting beautifully. The words and melodies are never overwhelmed and at the heart of it Tom's voice sounds sad and fragile.
In fact this is established from the start, as opening track 'The Water' begins with just his voice and a simple piano accompaniment.
'Fighter' is the first song to show the band in full, with twangy guitars and reverbed drums pounding out a heart beat. The lyrics are impressive too, telling a tale of a boxer who hates what he does and only gets in the ring out of fear.
The title track is pretty great, built around an achingly timeless melody, it reminds me of someone like Jimmy Webb or Nilsson. It taps into that vein of melancholic songwriting, and the protaganist finds himself in San Francisco “wondering why I still feel cold.” The massed trumpets sound great as well.
'Love is Hard' is possibly the most beautifully bleak moment. A string trio takes the place of the band and other background voices accompany Tom's vocal. The piece is actually a duet with Ciara O'Neill and her vocals provide a good contrast.
'One Man Band' is a big catchy tune and perhaps the most uptempo piece here, featuring full band, although the fact that the lead is shared between cello and glockenspiel gives it something special.
'Ballad of Morton Candell' is literally a ballad in the story song sense, telling the story of an engineer who built a station on the Northern Line. It's another big arrangement, but I like the way that the guitar lines come to the fore here.
Undoubtedly the most achingly beautiful moment is 'My Nadir'. Tom's quietest, most fragile vocal combines with some delicate piano and wonderfully mournful trumpets to create something very special. I'm sure I'm not the only one who has uttered the word 'Shipbuilding' in response to this track.
It's hard to follow that but 'A Personal Narrative of a Life at Sea pt II' begins dramatically with what can best be described as a humming choir with Tom singing above it, before the band kick in. It's one of the most dynamic tracks with lots of twists and turns, whilst 'Flowers' is a delicate note to end on, as it is a pretty acoustic guitar based tune.
At the heart of The Ural Winter there is some strong songwriting, so I reckon it would still have satisfied as a conventionally recorded album, but by bringing people together on that summer's day in 2010, a certain spark happened; something that made the music more alive. This is a downbeat, melancholic album that manages to feel raw and alive and is well worth your attention.