Outside It Rains
(Little Acorn, 2001)
According to the press release that accompanied this CD, Bud is "the band who are single-handedly dragging British acoustic music kicking and screaming into the 21st century." That's an interesting claim, especially considering that during the past year, London-based publications ranging from the Guardian to Time Out London have run articles on the so-called new acoustic revival and various performers participating in it. Lesson to PR agents: Be careful. Promote your band, but don't try to turn off reviewers before they've even heard the CD.
Luckily for Bud's public relations people, Outside It Rains lives up to its hype. "Breathe," the opening track, starts off so quietly that I actually turned up the volume for a few seconds. At that point, I heard drum rolls leading into gentle guitars that later served as accents for Jo Phillip's voice. At 7:30, it's unexpectedly long for a band that sounds as if it's striving for radio airplay -- a pleasant surprise in the days of songs tailored "just so" for radio's commercial interests. "Breathe" is one of those songs that makes a successful stab at expressing philosophy about life, love and death: "We get so short a span in life / moving as we do / against the wrinkles and the clock." It's aided by Jo Phillips' voice, which ranges from sweet and compelling at the song's start to emotive and forceful as the music heads towards its rock-oriented climax, with her high notes seemingly echoing Nikki Hancock's flute. "Madame Parisienne," opening with spoken lines in French, also shows off both Phillip's voice and Hancock's light, jazzy flute.
While Phillips' appealing vocals definitely highlight the band, she's not its only singer. Guitarists Nick Ingram and Antony Gooch likewise share that job; it sounds as if all three vocalists open the album's second track, "No Purchase Necessary." With Phillips' violin in the background, the song takes on a friendly, upbeat Corrs-type air, but the occasional rough-hewn quality of the male vocals helps it transcend stereotype. At a radio-friendly 4:03, it's a contender for airplay. Male vocals dominate the slower "Plainsong," with Hancock's flute adding to its moody sound. The flute, while not uncommon in traditional music, often tends to be put aside by pop/rock groups (Jethro Tull and the Moody Blues being notable exceptions, of course). Although Bud was formed in Lampeter, Wales, with band members generally hailing from English soil, there's a slight Irish feel to "Alternative Love Song," which perhaps can be attributed to Hancock's flute; it mingles with the acoustic guitars and skirts around and between both the female and male vocals. "100 Reasons" and "These Days," on the other hand, manage to hang onto a slight bluegrass feel while maintaining a very modern singer-songwriter standard.
If a flute can give "Alternative Love Song" an Irish lilt, perhaps it's the gently stark arrangement that gives "Melody" a jazz feel. Phillips' voice initially seems to want to take it elsewhere, but towards the end, she's settled into the mood and lets her voice enjoy the syncopated beat. Fortunately, Bud doesn't seem to be ground into any one specific genre and is willing to experiment with sounds and moods. "Songbird," containing the chorus from which the album's title is taken, is a prime example as it changes mood and musical inspiration within the song itself. The first notes make it sound as if it's a rock number, then Antony Gooch's banjo, complemented by flute and acoustic guitar, brings it back down the earth. I wonder how this song would work live; it seems as if it could become a longer piece in concert that might highlight all of the musicians' skills.
As I listened to Outside It Rains, I continually felt as if I'd heard something similar in the past. However, no matter how many times I wracked my brain, I couldn't quite come up with names that truly were representative of the band's sound. (The Corrs came to mind again with the chorus to "Love Again," the flute-driven closing number, but the comparison ends with thoughtful verses along the lines of "She's reading the language of love / she learned the grammar long ago / It isn't her native tongue.") To be honest, I think the lack of comparisons is a good sign. Bud's songs, their arrangements, and Phillips' voice, in particular, made me comfortable and at home with them, but they're not necessarily derivative of any other specific performer.
If Outside It Rains is any indication, Bud has a good future in store. Bud may not be the only new British group playing acoustic music in the early 21st century, but this debut release, featuring folk stylings blended with pop music, may certainly lead the group towards the top of its genre. This album features twelve original songs that seem designed to wrap you up in their warm, emotional embrace. It may be raining outside, but you're safe and warm inside with Bud.
[ by Ellen Rawson ]