ONCE you’ve taken a listen to Junkboy’s Sovereign Sky – out on Fretsore on September 25th – you’ll have reason to thank label boss Ian Sephton.
He signed the band, at whose heart are brothers Mik and Rich Hanscomb, and released their rather lovely album from last year: the baroque acoustic wondrousness of Trains, Trees, Topophilia (have a watch of the video for “Old Camera New Film” here).
That album came out on extremely desirable, long sold-out lathe-cut vinyl and was indeed topophiliac for brothers who grew up in and around Southend-on-Sea, out on the Essex coast: it featured tracks grounded in their specific geography, such as “Rayleigh Lanes”, “Sweetheart of the Estuary” (a play on The Byrds, perhaps?) and “The Cluniac Monks of Prittlewell Priory”. It was also dead lovely.
They’ve actually been plying their whispered trade for more than a decade and a half, have Junkboy. They released one album and a couple of EPs for Moshi Moshi back in 2004, and early doors embodied more of that lo-fi, quirky indietronica thing that’s done so well for Hot Chip, before settling down for four albums over nine years with South London’s Enraptured imprint, beginning to incorporate more post-rock stylings into a flowering musical identity.
Sovereign Sky is actually the fourth of these albums; but that’s where the wheels came off a bit, according to Rich Hanscomb: “It came out on vinyl in 2014. Our then long-time label decided to self-distribute with this release. We were psychedelic guinea pigs, if you will.
“Alas, some genuine personal issues impacted the label’s ability – to put bluntly – get it into shops. The same issues meant digital distribution was nonexistent, too.”
It was picked up and loved critically, including by Shindig! Magazine and Gideon Coe at BBC6 Music. But you just couldn’t lay your hands on a copy for love nor money. Especially, given how shy record store staff are, the latter.
But Ian of Fretsore was very much one of those enraptured by Sovereign Sky back in 2014. There was unfinished business there and it was time it found the audience it deserved, he thought; those people (fully including, as it turns out, me), who’d swoon for a finely wrought set of pastoral psych, looking across the Atlantic for a little solar warmth yet also deeply rooted in the landscape and the folk and acoustic music traditions of Britain. Ian, he did a very good thing.
Mik and Rich say of the album’s genesis: “We were so in love with lost, private-press albums of the hippie era, that it was ironic the album became what we had taken so much inspiration from.”
So now Sovereign Sky has been dusted down. It’s had some sonic polish; it’s got new sleeve notes by Quentin Orlean, Parisian record collector and first-time-round disciple of the album; it’s also getting its first CD issue, with an extra track.
Mik says: “We used this as an opportunity to go back to the tapes and improve the sound for digital release, utilizing our home studio’s new outboard gear and tech acquired in the interim period. And the benefit of hindsight!”
So what’s the cause of the adoration among those in the know? Let’s find out.
It opens with the 87 seconds of “Priory Park”, a sinuous English folk guitar weaving over environment recordings of giggling kids, birdsong, I’m hazarding from that location in Southend. It’s slight, oh so pretty, and sets the atmospheric tonic chord for what’s to follow. In that, think the prosaically titled “Introduction” from Bryter Layter.
Then it’s straight into the melodic rush of “Redwood”, with sweet strings lilting a melody as the lyrics hint at impressionistic imagery: “Pull back the daytime / Light begins to fade … Sunspots won’t flicker …”. An acoustic guitar pairs with the strings, fingerpicks quietly in support of the whispered singing; there’s a big, overdriven psych riff ladled on like honey, to power things forward. It’s psychedelic pop beauty.
“Release The Sunshine” is fashioned from a baroque piano progression, the strings interplaying with the reverbed vocals. I don’t think this kind of songwriting is at all easy to pull off; it’s gorgeous in the way The Left Banke and The High Llamas are. “Salt Water” was released as a single – you can watch the blurry seaside atmospheres of the video, down at the end – and for me it’s as if Head-era Monkees had somehow got spliced into early Felt. The whispered voice, the off-kilter, liquid guitar runs … Yes, of course that’s excellent.
“Rainfalls” has grace. It has twelve-strings. It would be eyed amorously by The Lilac Time of & Love For All. It stop-starts on this big, ringing chord flourish, You sense that these song, they’re of such quality will be the sort you play new friends, new girlfriends, come over all evangelical about. “Nah, forget that. You need this in your life,” you find yourself saying at an all-back-to-mine, deftly removing some piece of indie frippery from the deck.
“Stormy Weather” is, by the standards of Junkboy, relatively stripped back. “Woke up today, tried to pull away the darkness … The curtain fell on the road to my redemption,” proclaims a Hanscomb, his brother coming in on harmony. There’s the sort of pretty, modal chord progressions Love knew or a thing or two about, filtered through an autumnal British sensibility. By now you’re aware this is an album to luxuriate in, as an electric guitar picks out the vocal line atop strings in the refrain. “Would you give it up for one more day?” the song concludes as strings wind down through one last cadence.
“Red Letters” comes dressed in the finery of two acoustic guitars interplaying with that vocal whisper. There’s a lovely Felt-ness to this one as well; at least until cymbals crash and a string section seemingly borrowed from The Left Banke’s “Men Are Building Sand” leads to somewhere far more velvety. A solo Spanish guitar run, a grandstanding psych guitar riff, just acid enough to not disturb the bucolic calm of the track as a whole, pull us into the final verse, and so home.
“The Amber Glow” speaks of “ … the light above your door.” Some amorous dalliance. “Don’t ask why I keep staring at the floor / There’s a picture burned onto every painful thought … Cos I know now that I’ll never see your face.” The person in question must’ve been one tough cookie to resist songwriting of this strength under her window.
“Sovereign Sky” is British folk-rock of a masterful note. “Belo Horizonte”, named for the Brazilian city, is an acid-bossa instrumental, those bass strings rejoicing in layers of psych fuzz, placing Southend in the vanguard of tropicalia. There’s a first (and sparing) appearance of very light electronica, washing and wooshing through underneath.
The following and curiously titled “Images, Colours, Coffee”, keeps a little of that Latin DNA running and is obviously, you think, taken from one of those 1968/9-era buried classics that Sundazed, Rev-Ola and Edsel used to turn up with almost dismaying regularity. How, how exactly?, you ask yourself, did a record this great get passed by, lost? You know now. You’re listening to one just as great.
So it was: those of you buying the new CD or digital issue (and I promise you, there was one copy of the original vinyl out there in the marketplace when I last looked – and that in Finland) get an extra cut in the shape of “Could We Be Two”. It doesn’t sit stylistically as part of the main work, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t bloody lovely. It’s more late ‘64 perhaps than late ‘68; it’s naive, and I don’t mean naive in the sense that it’a bit rough; I mean in the sense it sounds like it was made at that point when rock ‘n’ roll was wide-eyed at its own potential, foresaw all the myriad possibilities that were open to it, was just unshackling from the bubblegum-sweet pop of the preceding years. If you’ve ever sat with The Byrds’ early comp Preflyte and delighted in “Airport Song”, you’ll get what I mean.
How to summate then? Some albums have deep conceptual resonance, some troubled conceptions; others are just brilliant sets of songs. I suppose you could say Sovereign Sky stems from the middle of the three, but most importantly it’s the latter. Its. A. Great. Record. There.
You’ll have noticed I’ve cited other bands in reference in my writing. To clarify: this is isn’t because they’re copyists, but because Junkboy are as-yet underappreciated travellers in the Great Music. If you follow them on Facebook, you’ll know they happily big up great records that have influenced them: Jan & Dean, The Byrds’ Younger Than Yesterday; Cardinal; Jim O’Rourke. I’m gonna add a couple more who Junkboy travel beside in their quest for beautiful, baroque, psych songmanship: Patrick Watson, Michael Head.
And frankly if any of these acts above have stolen a place in your chest at any point, then the simple resulting advice is: you need this Junkboy album. It’s brilliant.