903 days. That’s a long time to wait for new material, especially when the quality of Shallow Bed is taken into consideration. 903 days I’ve been waiting to hear new Dry The River and when the CD arrived in the post a sudden wave of apprehension fell over me. What if it’s not very good? What if this band that I’ve come to idolise can’t match the idyllic raw beauty of their debut?
I sat with the CD on my desk all day and couldn’t bring myself to put it in the computer. In the safety and warming confines of my bed I laid in the dark with my girlfriend and pressed play tentatively. After one complete spin the Wench and I exchanged first thoughts. “It’s a better album, but that could be its problem,” I offered. When the album arrived, I said to my boss if I couldn’t give this album a 10, I wouldn’t review it. After a first listen I was beginning to look for other August releases but I realised it was impossible to compare Alarms in the Heart to Shallow Bed at this stage. Each track on Shallow Bed outranks everything else on my iTunes by some measure. I’ve played the new album at every possible interval over the weekend and I’ve just finished a seventh spin. While still not enough to be comparable, we have deadlines so I’m taking the plunge now. The sophomore album opens with its namesake and straight away Liddle’s darling voice finds its usual rhythm over a steadily paced acoustic guitar and honed bass.
‘Hidden Hand’ opens with a radio-friendly guitar line and proceeds to unfold into a great rock song. Liddle still weaves a tale with considered imagery which often carries religious connotations ‘when you wait for a talking snake.’
Dry The River invited Emma Pollock to get involved on ‘Roman Candle’ and her contribution is not only flawless but entirely necessary. Taylor’s guitar swerves through the gaps of Miller’s bass and Warren’s drums while Liddle and Pollock’s vocals twist over the soundscape in a haunting embrace. Her voice has a classical edge that lends some sophistication to the track but has enough character to stand up next to Liddle’s.
‘Med School’ was the first track from the album to catch my eye as I took in the track listing when it was first released. While I’ve always being a fan of Liddle’s lyrics this is the first time I’ve ever felt like he’s offering a real insight into his past. ‘They’re cutting up the bodies / in the med school basement / and I am only watching on an academic placement.’ The song is dynamic, effortlessly switching between a slow driving chorus and bouncing, swerving verses.
We are given the first slow offering at the halfway point in ‘It Was Love That Laid Us Low.’ With everything turned down a notch it gives Miller and Warren a chance to gleam some much deserved recognition for their respective output of bass and drums. The duo have a real knack for pace and effortlessly hold tracks (both old and new) together.
I heard ‘Gethsemane’ at a DTR gig back in February and thoroughly enjoyed my first glimpse at the band’s new material. Having since hammered the video, ‘Gethsemane’ already seems like an old friend and it certainly grows in stature with each listen. For me, this track is the closest offering to Shallow Bed. Liddle is singing about a Christian landmark, the tender moments are broken by huge splashes of noise and it makes you want to tug on your shirt and scream the lyrics.
‘Rollerskate’ was the other title to capture my attention and, similarly to ‘Med School,’ it seems Liddle has abstained from his veiled style of song writing to pursue more personal subject matter. The song contains one of the albums stand out moments; the instrumentation dies out and leaves Liddle alone with his acoustic guitar to proclaim, ‘I couldn’t want you more than this.’ After some repetition the music barges back in as Liddle continues his refrain and harmonies swirl like angels protecting the statement’s innocence.
A radio-friendly guitar line opens up ‘Everlasting Light’ which continues to grow into itself. Taylor’s guitar screeches about, the Sigur Ros influence becoming quite evident but Taylor is a talent in his own right with enough skill to pull it off.
‘Vessel’ is the first song on the album that gets past the five minute mark. The track starts off subtly but begins to tease a big drop from the 40 second mark as the strings grow in prominence. Valgeir Sigurosson is on string duty and does an incredible job. The band announced Harvey’s departure earlier this year and his absence was always going to be a big void to fill. Sigurosson obviously more than plugs the hole but Harvey’s absence when playing live is going to be notable. The track teases at the drop, surging and dissipating like waves. Liddle then whispers a line and the track drops. The moment is perfect and is certain to induce some hair-standing-on-neck action when heard live.
On the first listen, with nine tracks down and only one left I said to my girlfriend, ‘This is the last time we’ll hear new Dry The River for a while. It’s over 11 minutes long, get ready.’ My anticipation, of course, was for a huge closer, I wanted them to achieve the unimaginable and pen a song more epic than ‘Lion’s Den.’ They didn’t.
‘Hope Diamond’ isn’t 11 minutes long. It’s less than four minutes. After at least a minute of laying rigidly waiting for the ambient noise left behind to drop into something eyeball shattering I realised I was way off the mark. There was no big ending. This was the cruising off into the sunset ending rather than a fireball type. There is a secret track though, ‘Husk,’ a track so secret there are videos of DTR playing the song live over a year ago. Initially I felt cheated but then realised that both songs are exceptional in their own right and it was a brave move for the band to end the album in such a calm manner. The choice oozed a confidence in their ability. ‘Hope Diamond’ epitomises DRT, the guitars jangle like a wind charm on a summers day, the bass thumps as if mirroring the band’s simultaneous heartbeat, the drums roll like landscapes and beautiful harmonies fill the air like bird’s calls. Which brings me back to my opening point about it being a better album. It feels like DTR have pinched their sound in at either end, they’ve lost the heart-wrenchly tender bare vocals of ‘Weights and Measure’ and the onslaught of rock seen in ‘Lion’s Den’ and concentrated on the middling rock of Chambers and The Values. The radio friendly, accessible stuff. Every second of this album has been considered to the nth degree. It’s no bad thing but it’s that tenderness that made Shallow Bed, it’s that raw emotion that’s lost when songs are sat for two years and fiddled with.
Reading this back, it sounds like I’ve been harsh on the album, but I guess that’s the fan inside of me expecting nothing short of perfection. In truth, Alarms In The Heart is a valiant album that will please old fans and certainly win the band new ones. Liddle himself admitted the second album is ‘difficult’ and I do feel they’ve effortlessly jumped that hurdle and will take the next one just as easily.
What Dry The River did with Shallow Bed was put a group of songs together, what they’ve done with Alarms In The Heart is write an album. An album that, hopefully, in time, will cement itself alongside its predecessor.