Toby Martin (Youth Group) has a distinctive angelic voice and astute ear for indelible melodies, but more than anything his new solo album ‘I Felt The Valley Lifting’ reveals in greater focus on his ability to weave vivid and fascinating tales: reaped from the ennui of everyday existence as well as drawing on folklore and imagination.
‘I Felt The Valley Lifting’ was recorded and mixed at Yellowarch Studios in Sheffield, UK, with Colin Elliot (Jarvis Cocker, Richard Hawley). Martin put together a diverse ensemble of musicians from the local Slaithwaite area, lovingly dubbed the Colne Valley Players. Consisting of MohammadReza Beladi on dammam (drum), ney (flute) and neyanban (Iranian bagpipes); George Harrington on drums; Julia Morgan on tin whistle, flute and backing vocals; Chris Ruffoni on bass, trumpets, piano and backing vocals; and Sarah Tym on violin and Northumbrian bagpipes, their eclectic contributions can be heard across the album’s nine tracks, lending a refreshing air. Martin says:
There was something very magical about making this record. The songs seemed to come, unbidden, from the earth of the place I was living in. And we as a band just clicked, even though we were from very different places and walks of life. I recorded this just before leaving England, after living there for four years. It was a swan song. Listening to it now I am immediately transported to that period in my life – that place and those people. I am really proud of it. I know everyone says this at release time, but I think it’s my best work. And I am really, really excited to share it.”
Opening track ‘Strange Fish’ opens with an acapella and just as you think this is going to be some sort of traditional folk dirge Martin subverts expectations by introducing discordant fuzzy instrumentation and an element of chaos and surprise. The lyrics are utterly endearing – discussion such mundane things such as sharing wi-fi connections with neighbours – a sort of modern day folk tale.
At six minutes long, ‘Dark Red Blood’ begins with weird rhythms and instrumentation: mesmerising and yet at the time faintly disturbing and discomforting, before lilting into a reflective folk-infused and rambling tale.
‘Town Gossip’ features the middle eastern sounds of a flute (ney), creating a lovely tension between a traditional, jangling indie pop song with sweeping strings and something more exotic and mysterious.
Whereas Youth Group’s ‘Australian Halloween’ still bled the inner west of Sydney despite being written and recorded in his new hometown, the single, ‘Linthwaite Houdini’, is infused with a sense of the Yorkshire dales with its gentle brass band undercurrents.
Martin says of the new single:
My friend Arthur told me the story of the Linthwaite Houdini one night as we walked across the moors to the pub,. He told me about the man who buried himself alive at the village fete and how it all went horribly wrong. ‘When did this happen?’ said I. ‘The 18th century?’ ‘No,’ said Arthur. ‘2015′. Something about the story really resonated with me more deeply: the ways in which people throw themselves into crazy projects and start to lose themselves in them. They become so taken up with them that they start to lose perspective. It seemed like a story I could relate to!
It is a beautiful tale of tilting at windmills and the romance of possibilities, and Martins delivery is nuanced and empathetic. The beautifully shot, sepia-tinged video accompanying the song captures the raw and visceral nature of the countryside and the landscapes of northern Britain: you can feel the chill winds and the inner warmth.
‘Bird Boy’ is an effervescent lilting tune with a sea-shanty flow and bounce again subverted by the introduction of a fuzzy, clattering background that overtakes towards the end. The curiously named ‘Buddleia and Vomit’ is a gently rolling track with heavenly harmonies and a shimmering glow.
The album ends with the quiet reflective ‘Pole Moor’ with its anthemic drive, breathing percussive beats and mystical story, contrasting images of mobile phone towers with ancient tales. It is beautiful and shimmering end to a remarkable album.
‘I Felt The Valley Lifting’ never settles down into cliche or complacency: it is an album filled with contrasts and an inherent glow: pastoral pop meets world music, delivering tales of ordinary life mixed in with a magical realism. Martin’s golden vocals and sense of veracity and empathy burnish this album and create a steel strong spine as the listener is taken on a mystical journey grounded antithetically in the minutiae of everyday existence.
Feature Photograph: Cameron Emerson-Elliott