These are exceptional musicians, and their close harmonies on these darkly hopeful songs will stick with you — like aural ghosts, they’ll haunt your head.
Strange Records, 2013
8.0 / 10
The best folk music has the ability to take its listeners to distant lands — geographical and spiritual — peopled by compelling characters, usually ghosts with tragic pasts who met with untimely ends. The debut EP from London’s Scowlin Owl1 certainly does that and more, combining classic folk elements with contemporary sounds and ideas, highlighted by an artistically cinematic sensibility. Make no mistake, though, these stories are dark — but the dark ones are often the most interesting.
The band takes its inspiration from many directions: Asia (“Mifune”, “Sugawara And The Sunflower”), the American West (“Poker Alice”, “Message From The Psalms”) and the British Isles (“Grey”, “These Strange Companions”), all with a keen eye for tragic detail, anguish and retribution. Like the best folk music — or any compelling narrative form — the ethereal vocals and mesmerizing arrangements cloak the suffocatingly creepy underlying stories in a palatable sheen.
The opening track “Message From the Psalms” proclaims these stories are “Old as sand/ See this is the story/ With H-A-T-E Cain laid his brother down/ But unto His glory/ With L-O-V-E I helped your mother drown/ Come to me my dears/ All I want’s your secret kept.” The song was inspired by the story of murderous preacher Harry Powell, specifically the film version portrayed by Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter. “Mifune” delves into the complicated artistic relationship between legendary actor Toshiro Mifune (the so-called Japanese John Wayne) and acclaimed director Akira Kurosawa: “You know that you bested me/When you walked into view you arrested me/Your edge tore up the screen/Fragile and angry you claimed every scene.”
The guitar solo on “Poker Alice” (about an actual American tough-as-nails historical character) provides a gorgeous bridge amidst the dust and grit of the subject, and the vocals on “Sugawara And The Sunflower” shine like shafts of golden sunlight, appropriate for a song based on a true life tale of the Japanese fisherman who rode out the 2011 tsunami on his boat.
All of the Owls are exceptional musicians, and their close harmonies on these darkly hopeful songs will stick with you — like aural ghosts, they’ll haunt your head.
1. Scowlin Owl are Nina Lovelace (vocals, guitar, flute), Sally Gainsbury (violin), Karina Zakri (vocals, bass) and Yvonne Bordon (guitar, vocals, mandolin).