Album Review: BC Camplight – How to Die in the North

Okay, confession time. Prior to hearing How to Die in the North, I was utterly ignorant of the work of BC Camplight. Simply put, his was not a name that I was familiar with and it was the fact that he was signed to Bella Union that caught my eye more than anything else. Home to two of my favourite American acts (Midlake and John Grant), the Bella Union label has been a byword for great music in much the same way that Elektra was in the late 60s.

So what of BC Camplight himself? The man otherwise known as Brian Christinzio had recorded a pair of albums for One Little Indian in 2005 and 2007, both of which were great despite struggling to find the audience they deserved. Christinzio opted to step away from the music industry for a while, relocated from Philidelphia to Manchester, where he still resides.

After some prompting from a bunch of local musicians that he met in the pub, Christinzio was encouraged to return to music, a journey which eventually saw him sign to Bella Union, on the strength that it was the same label that John Grant was signed to and therefore they must know something about nurturing talent.

BC Camplight’s first album for Bella Union is How to Die in the North, and it’s a belter. A blend of beautifully written, arranged and recorded psych-pop, it drips with quality and runs the gamut of emotion. Running at a taught 41 minutes, it strikes the delicate balance between displaying Christinzio’s range as a writer and performer, while still leaving the audience wanting more. At nine tracks it also has the added bonus of showing the complete track listing on the screen of an iPod Classic, perhaps an accidental detail, but one that more acts really should take advantage of.

The album itself arrives with a bass line, descending electronic sounds and a simple riff, all of which opens “You Should Have Gone to School”, one of the album’s most accessible moments and a brilliant way for BC Camplight to reintroduce himself to the wider world as a potent musician and uncommonly effective vocals.

“Love Isn’t Anybody’s Fault” starts as a more downbeat number, but one that underlines the quality of Christinzio’s lyrics. Musically it’s a song that expands and unfolds like a piece of inverse origami, the arrangement revealing it’s brilliance as it progresses.

“Just Because I Love You” is the album’s lead single and another example of just how firm BC Camplight’s grasp of commercial pop dynamics is. It’s one of the strongest singles I’ve heard for some time, but the fact that it doesn’t overshadow the rest of How to Die in the North only confirms how strong the rest of the album is.

“Grim Cinema” was apparently going to be the album’s intended title track, before there was a change of heart and a considerably more evocative title was chosen, but that not to say that the song itself isn’t great, because it’s a prime slice of driving commercial psych-rock, not a million miles away from Super Furry Animals were capable of at their wiggy best. It’s the sort of track that would become a firm favourite on 6 Music, and could very well be key to gaining the album some considerable airplay throughout 2015.

My personal favourite track of the whole album is “Good Morning Headache”, another song which metamophises as you listen to it, starting as a delicate and vulnerable ballad, then going all cosmic-americana on you, with a female couterpoint to Christinzio’s heart-wrenching vocals, switching back again as his vocals return to the fore. It’s difficult to say exactly why I was particularly drawn to this song, but it seems to hit me in an emotional soft-spot, which is something that marks out BC Camplight as a rare talent as far as I am concerned.

“Thieves in Antigua” is shot-through with a Brian Wilson / Beach Boys influence, as the album swings back towards more upbeat material. It’s another one of those songs I can envision getting significant airplay and as such it could be key to the album’s success, with it’s winning melody, effective use of brass and that female vocal again. It is simply pot, a great pop song and one that I hope gets the airplay it deserves.

“Thieves in Antigua” is followed up by yet another swing of the pendulum in terms of mood, as “Atom Bomb” finds BC Camplight once again in a more subdued mood, though this time I detect something of a debt to Harry Nilsson in it’s arrangement, who is someone that a lot more modern acts should take the time to tip their hat to.

The mood pendulum is then twisted entirely out of synch with “Lay Me on the Floor”, one of the first songs How to Die in the North that indicated that I would be listening to the album on pretty much permanent rotation since I was sent the advance copy of it a couple of weeks ago. It’s unlike anything else on the album, utterly compelling and a really rather addictive tune.

The album closes with “Why Doesn’t Anybody Fall in Love”, a heart-swellingly romantic sweeping epic squeezed into just over three and a half minutes. Lesser acts might have been tempted to drag the tune out to a more cumbersome run time, but BC Camplight knows the value of economy and can say more in three and a half minutes than most acts can in a whole album. It’s a brilliant way to end what could be a career-defining album.

As a touring member of War on Drugs, Brian Christinzio was a super-talented sideman, however How to Die in the North is an album that effectively re-launches his solo career in the most effective way possible. If tracks from this album receive the radioplay that they deserve to, How to Die in the North has every chance of being one of the most celebrated releases of 2015, setting the bar at a height that only the very best acts could possibly hope to match.

This time last month, I’d never even heard of BC Camplight. Now he’s about to release the album by which I’ll be comparing all others to for the next twelve months. I even feel I need to buy him a pint to say thank you.

How to Die in the North will be released 19th January on Bella Union.

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