Debut album from West Country folkie that can’t quite break its slow, soft shackles to reach the heights.
Roo Panes has been building up to this moment for a couple of years and that might be part of the problem with “Little Giant”. Essentially this is a majority re-packaging of his three earlier EPs (seven of the 12 numbers are taken from “Once”, “Weight of Your World” and “Land of the Living”) with five new tracks. It’s a variant on what has become the standard record company ‘greatest hits’ wheeze of pumping out the stuff you already have with a couple of fresh cuts to get you to re-buy what you already lined their pockets with.
That’s not something for which we should look to blame Roo, in my opinion. Market forces and listening habits being what they are he’s got little choice but to woo listeners with smaller selections. That done, who can fault him for wanting to put out a long player – whatever anyone says about the death of albums I bet most emerging artists (especially in traditional genres) want to cut an LP. Lord knows if I had any musical talent or aspirations, aside from the one and only gig of Beard and The Sideburns, I would be aiming at a full-length.
Trouble is this effective ‘best of’ doesn’t include my personal favourite – “Land of the Living” – and there’s not much of that same emotional and musical power here. And one more thing – you have to ask questions about the sequencing when three of the five new’uns are grouped to close out the album.
Ultimately “Little Giant” suffers from too much continuity of mood and mode. It’s too hushed, too slow. I can see that this would indeed go with a window seat, headphones and a cup of tea, as the accompanying press notes suggest it would. But I don’t think that Roo was imagining that the music should be lost in the silence of the view or overwhelmed by the comfort of repose. In the absence of strong dynamics, variety of pace and instrumentation, regularly arresting lyrics and a real sense of forward momentum in the rhythms, “Little Giant” all too often risks such fates.
Indeed, of the five new tracks, only lead single “Tiger-Striped Sky” overcomes all those problems. It puts multiple hooks into you in its first few seconds. Here, Roo pulls off one of those neat acoustic tricks where the rhythm of the playing means that the guitar becomes its own accompanying rhythm section. It helps that the melody and the guitar line (with some welcome lightening from, I guess ukulele) are both pretty.
photo: Alexander Rhind
Notwithstanding any concerns, Roo Panes remains an artist to be interested in. There is good stuff on here – the title track is a delightful strum where the guitar is allowed forwards in the mix, and the singing is strong and proud. The wordless vocal adornments feel less like warm-ups and more like primal, rich evocations of the mood. Here too the strings add something essential, a swell, a bursting of heart and a mirroring of those earlier cries. “Start small, grow tall” he asks, and we believe him, we want to rise to meet the bidding.
Often it feels as though Roo’s singing is mannered, or at least that he is holding back, but on “Home From Home” he gives his voice freer rein, and it is a triumph when he does so. Again the guitars and strings are in good partnership, working in and around each other to keep the tune cresting confidently forwards. On one of the new tracks, “Deeper Than Shallow”, Roo does step into murkier territory. A string-led unease, built on an unsettling thrum, is like the sweaty, fearful cloy of sheets when you have been woken in the night and the house feels too quiet to be still, asleep.
This album having been released and registered, we can hope that Roo now feels braced for the next stage: a quest into new songs, music that gives him greater room for expression, a more confident role for his voice, all merging into a quick follow-up that unleashes the potential. “Little Giant” is out on 6 October.