Hot on the heels of their ridiculously gorgeous single ‘Sweetest Moment’ comes the debut album from Glasgow’s Sister John.
Led by Amanda McKeown (vocals, guitar), the quartet have spend the last year meticulously constructing a grown up record that touches on pastoral folk, brushed psychedelia and country-rock storytelling.
Backed by multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Lilley, violin player Heather Phillips and Sophie Pragnell on drums and viola, McKeown has crafted a beautiful record with conscientious craftsmanship.
Even when the arrangements are sparse, light and airy, they are impeccably constructed; layered up and mixed together.
There’s plenty of this light and shade on show on gossamer soft opener ‘Thinner Air’, while ‘Rider on the Hill’ is a stately ramble like Gram Parsons taking a country walk.
A great example of the group’s knack for pen-portrait song writing comes with the dramatic, almost-gothic narrative of ‘Backstreet Swimmers’ that sees the strings build to a needling intensity as McKeown tells her tale.
‘Sweetest Moment’ is still immaculate; warm and welcoming, like walking through the door to the waft of home-cooking, with just a hint of darkness at its heart, while McKeown’s delivery of the “mostly they don’t want us to know” pre-chorus on ‘Try To Be Good’ elevates it to a perfect mix of beauty and drama.
On ‘See You Again’ the group channel the dusty, road-soiled weariness of an old Neil Young record, over quivering slide guitar while ‘Sister John’s Dream’ is a wicked Dylan-referencing sixties pastiche with a brilliant guitar part and an upbeat rhythm that resolves itself into a perfect two and a bit minute pop song.
Stately strings power ‘Swallowed the Moon’ whose description of moonlight as casting a “crescent tattoo” is one of the most arresting images of the year, while ‘Hot Water’ draws its hook from little more than McKeown gracefully intoning the title.
Nonetheless it’s haunting and intoxicating, drawing the listener into the track and soothing them like a warm bath.
The torch ballad ‘Friends’ and the straightforward folk fingerpicking of ‘Gone’ is probably the least distinctive section of the record, but Sister John are soon back to their very best with ‘He Came Down’, which sees McKeown switch effortlessly between fearful and threatening with the tiniest tweak of a vocal inflection.
The promotional material for the record makes the bold claim that this is a record that would sit comfortably alongside such classics as Neil Young’s Harvest, The Band’s Music From Big Pink, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours or Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate.
The highest compliment you can pay Returned From Sea is that after a few listens this comparison no longer seems so far-fetched.
Words: Max Sefton