Tin Roof marks the curious collaboration of poet and vocalist Russell Walker (Pheromoans / Bomber Jackets) and musician Tom James Scott. But rather than blending their unique styles to form a new sound, each artist is presented practically intact alongside the other. It’s a little disorientating and messy at times, but there are also moments of pure beauty.
‘He’s Always In Here’ introduces the album, bearing the hallmarks of Scott’s style: delicacy, poise, an air of studied randomness and a glass egg melody to hold in your hand. ‘Artificial Eyes’ bumps up the tempo with a jaunty organ grinder melody, and introduces Walker’s idiosyncratic tone.
As the track builds up, the music becomes a little more dazzled, and Scott does a good job of reflecting the lyrical insecurity through the music, but it’s Walker who is the centre of attention. His boyish voice rolls out consciously non-rhyming lines, building towards a punchline – “I need to man up / I need to man down” – around which he fixates for the rest of the song.
This is the first instance of many of this kind of repetition throughout the album: it seems Walker doesn’t want his witticisms to be missed. The echoing punchline of ‘Twickenham Slags’ revolves around “dirty surfaces and subscriptions”, and coupled with a flat, ill-fitting melody, this track begins to give the impression that the Walker/Scott collaboration is both jarring and a little boring.
‘Johnny’ does nothing but reinforce this impression, sounding like an improvised jazz/slam poetry recital at college. The organ grinder jaunt is back for ‘Anxious Under Tin’, which quickly becomes a headache, combining an unholy and juddering mess of organs and bucket drumming with nursery rhyme lyrics that aim for something like David Shrigley’s ugly and brilliant realism, but miss the mark:
“Anxious under tin again / Five unemptied wheelie bins
The food waste goes in there / But they haven’t been tipped away yet
Haven’t quite gone at it fully / Anxious because of it”
Rather than emitting charming, childish simplicity, these tuneless lines offer a clumsy, randomly targeted and not particularly incisive critique of suburban pettiness and dependence. But then comes ‘Grace Period’: it’s a very pretty track, and while amorphous shows how formlessness can deliver a coherent whole. Rose Keeler’s guest vocals are melted with Walker’s into gorgeous summer field recordings of birds and placid clinks.
The dreamy summer haze continues into ‘Pink Slip’, and Walker has nailed the lyrics for this track. The uncertainty of the melody staggering into recordings of a tide perfectly match his wavering dream lyricism. I still don’t exactly like the sound of his voice, and the way he stresses his words – it’s Mike Skinner devoid of charisma – but the song exposes the poetry of daily life more closely than the other tracks so far.
But it is ‘The Rundells’ that really hits the sweet spot, and is the poster boy for this collaboration. Faint strains of field recordings chime into melody and bass buzz, as Walker mumbles lines in a desolate voice: “I knew the holiday was over / When we stopped checking the weather”. In this track his repetition really works, and Scott meshes with Walker perfectly to display the beauty of the everyday, the personal quality of a mundane tragedy and obsessive mental reverberations of a break-up.
The pace quickens again in ‘225 Says You’ll Stay’, featuring shabby sea-front appeal and the playful jingling of a piano over Walker’s narrative about the innocence of a little child. Overall it’s quite unexceptionable, but a field recording tacked onto the end offers a bright glimpse into something more personal. It sounds like Walker is crunching along the beach in Brighton, just singing to himself: it’s a perfect moment, and such a good addition to the organic nature of the record.
This cohesiveness is stomped to bits by the latter half of the album, which sounds like half-baked explorations into musical experimentalism. ‘Wild Cards’ sounds a lot like an amateur improvisation on the church organ, and is every bit as unpleasant as that sounds. The barely existent mastering on the record is accentuated in these tracks, and creates an effect of arbitrariness that misses charming by many posts and lands firmly in amateur valley. Alongside unmusical jitterings, the lyricism also wanes. ‘Clapham Monster’ is supposed to be hilarious, I’m sure of it, but to me it forms a really good example of where this album fails to reach the heights of social commentary it aims at: “I am the Clapham monster / Can I get a porridge he says / It was a late one”. It’s truly lame lyrical work, and the delivery is just as limp.
The album sags to a close with ‘I Just Can’t Say When’, scraping together vocals and chords in jarring tones. It’s dull and frustrating to listen to, hobbling along with no direction and climaxing in pocket-dial scuffs and another lame lyric that aims for the significance of the everyday – “Golf bags in London / I got drunk / And watched pornography”. The aim is clear: to display a Bukowski mind-state of rough intelligence, boredom and depression assuaged by alcohol: an accidental poet of the everyday. Instead hits bad, random expressions right in the kisser.
At its best, Charcoal Owls offer a beautiful coupling of melted melodies and pared-back lyricism to describe the lullaby poetics of daily life, but at its worst – which unfortunately comes around more often – it is a thorough mess. Experimental in a way that is sometimes disjointed and sometimes beautiful, this album still indicates interesting musical potential. It’s just that the more casual and flippant a sound you want, the harder you have to work to get it – and that’s something this album just hasn’t achieved at all.