Andrew Farmer and Sons of Caliber ride the alt-folk wave with a debut album of highs and lows
In music, as with most things, everything goes in cycles. And, after many years in which the very mention of 'folk' would have had you banished to the back of the cool class, the last half-decade has seen checked shirts, banjos, mandolins and earnest vocals raised to the very epitome of hip.
Some of this has been most welcome – think Bon Iver and Laura Marling. Some of it, much less so. (We're looking at you, Mumford and Sons.)
Locally, too, the scene has been awash with bands and ensembles eager to make hay while the folk sun shines, and alongside the likes of Emerald Armada, Farriers and In Their Thousands stand Sons Of Caliber – or Andrew Farmer and friends.
Albatross is songwriter, singer and guitarist Farmer's first full-length album, though at nine songs running over 31 minutes, it only just qualifies as full-length. Following 2012's The Tundra EP, it consists of a similar blend of slow, contemplative ballads and energetic hoedowns.
Undoubtedly, the latter is where Farmer is on safer ground. He has a powerful voice that suits an energetic song, and as long as the tempo is kept high, Albatross is pretty engaging.
The album opens with 'Jackdaw', which begins gently over soft organ and piano chords before giving way to a stirring folk-rock vibe with double-time drums and a rousing, sing-along chorus. Farmer is in good voice here, and the arrangement – with well-placed strings playing off some moody piano in the coda – makes it a stand-out track.
Similarly 'The Rook' sounds like a single: busy drums to the fore, an elegant melody, evocative lyrics and the album's best chorus. These are two of several songs in which Farmer's clear affinity for nature – no doubt a product of his upbringing on a farm in County Derry – takes centre stage.
Unfortunately the slow songs aren't as successful, and can be ponderous when you want them to be atmospheric. 'Foxes And Ravens' is well arranged and well sung, but the chorus is sluggish and lets the song down, and even the injection of pace towards the end of the track fails to paper over the cracks.
'Boughs Break' is another song that starts slow and builds to a climax, though this could possibly have been handled better, as it doesn't quite achieve the ragged grandeur to which you suspect Farmer and co aspire. Meanwhile 'Break My Back' and 'Young Dove', while pleasant, drift past without leaving much of a lasting impression.
There are bright spots elsewhere. 'Head Over Heels', while a touch clumsy lyrically, is a convincing love song with plenty of drama and a real sense of longing, and the closing male/female duet 'Yellow Rose' is sweet and beautifully sung.
Farmer has a strong, distinctive voice and songwriting style, and a handful of stirring songs. Given the appetite for alternative folk music in Northern Ireland and further afield at present, Albatross could feasibly find a decent audience, but don't expect a crossover breakthrough.