Being more familiar with Adam Holmes’ work as part of the excellent hip-hop outfit Bang Dirty, this album was approached with an entirely open mind.
As it transpires, Holmes is just as compelling minus the backdrop of thumping ZA beats and sizzling Mog bars.
Midnight Milk is the Edinburgh musician’s third album with the Embers, following 2014’s Heirs and Graces and 2016’s Brighter Still.
Intensely passionate and soulful, it draws on a dizzying array of influences – from early folk and gospel to, yes, hip-hop and reggae.
The result is ten songs of considerable quality, most warm and uplifting although a few mellow and threnodic.
Conceived and recorded in Holmes’ bedroom, Midnight Milk opens with ‘When Will I Be Free’, a slow-building but ultimately dreamy number which sees Holmes reassert his rhyming credentials: “the sword above my head’s hangin’ by a thread/ keep the baby fed upon the milk and do whatever just to get your bread.”
There’s something of the Southern Gothic tradition to this one, melded of course with the unique sound of a Scotsman laying down punchy bars.
‘Don’t Worry’ is the kind of song that puts a smile on your face, proceeding in a carefree fashion over a gentle guitar and evoking a gauzy springtime feel.
‘Safe in Your Love’, meanwhile, is a moist-eyed ode to maternal affection featuring a lovely understated piano and Holmes’ inimitable narrative style, which remains the centre of gravity for the whole of Midnight Milk.
The album’s first single ‘No Man is an Island’ has a jaunty, almost evangelical sound which belies deeper lyrics around which the song is built: “are you squandering time, are you gathering debts?/ do you take what you want, do you want what you get?”
You can certainly imagine the chorus provoking a bit of a sing-along in a live setting, and the same is true for the almost Afro-Caribbean style refrain in ‘Big Blue Sun’.
Vocals are absent from the tender piano piece ‘5 Years’, as if Holmes is offering the listener a blank canvas on which to sketch their own impressions and ideas.
The song would not sound out of place playing over the credits at the end of a gut-wrenching war film.
Nor, for that matter, would album closer ‘Can You Feel the Fire Inside’, which is one of Midnight Milk’s real high points.
After a plangent intro, it grows into a warm embrace of a song yet leaves plenty of space for the listener to interpret the lyrics as they see fit.
On this evidence, the fire inside Adam Holmes and the Embers is burning brightly.
Midnight Milk is an arresting and autumnal collection that warms the heart.
Words: Ronnie McCluskey