London – Departures is the full-length debut from Owl & Mouse, the London-based quintet built around Brisbane songstress and ukulele player, Hannah Botting (sister of Allo Darlin’s bassist, Bill) and also featuring sibling Jen on backing vocals. Augmented by bassist Tom Wade, Emma Winston on keyboards and Dan Mayfield on violin and baritone ukulele, the band purveys a mellow brand of indie pop with some contemporary folk tones. Fans of woodland creatures should note that the band name comes from a song Hannah Botting wrote some years back about an owl and a mouse that go to war together. Yes, great night vision and notorious stealth could well assist the cause of military supremacy but might not the owl be tempted to eat the mouse when the going gets tough?
However there’s nothing of that on this menu but instead some thoughtful music to feed on. Unassuming could have been coined to describe this record but don’t let this supposition deceive you. It is an album that creeps up and wraps a tender arm around you as your perception of it shifts from pleasant to fully accomplished. Opening song, “Keep Your Eyes Wide Open”, has something of Belle & Sebastian about it in its chord structure and gently stabbing electric piano. You may find yourself singing lines from “The Boy with the Arab Strap” along to it but you won’t get any driving percussion. Instead it’s a gentle workout that establishes a delicacy and coyness that pervades the album.
It’s followed by “Misfits”, a joyful ode to finding the right one, succinctly summarised in the refrain: “And now you’re here I’m certain I have been wasting my days till now”. Several songs are led by simple ukulele strummed beginnings. The stripped back instrumentation though allows Hannah Botting’s vocal to assert itself and deliver her graceful couplets with incision. Her Antipodean roots show through on certain words, adding a colourful texture to her voice. Her turn of phrase is especially engaging. “Canvas Bags” charts the dilemma of trying to hold on love when you sense you should let go, the stance set up by the opening lines: “These canvas bags are full of nothing / They just remind me of where I’ve been”.
“Sinking Song” provides a fine platform for Tom Wade’s softly weathered baritone. The song itself is one of those that rise above modest shackles: its opening lines “Is it OK if I follow you home? / I don’t want to sleep alone” set up an intimate exposition of a one-way relationship. The real strength of the song is in its pin-drop delivery while its sentiments reach out from the personal towards a universal experience of love’s uncertainty. Earlier on the album Wade provides a pleasing vocal counterpoint to Hannah Botting’s lead, when trading verses on “Worst Kiss”, while all five band members add harmonies here and there and the effects are beautifully understated.
Arriving late in the set, the title track, a traveller’s tale of “Departures”, is actually just that; quite a departure from the overriding style of these songs as it features bright electric guitar (Allo Darlin’s Paul Rains guesting) and, by contrast, trumpet adding mournful accents to departure lounge squabbles. The summary strength of the record is in the telling. Each song seems to have a story behind it; substance to offset the ephemeral overtone of the music, lines that catch the imagination of the listener. A very promising debut indeed.
Tony’s great passion in life is music and nothing gives him more pleasure than unearthing good, original new music and championing independent musicians. His association with Best New Bands brings great opportunities for this. He also writes for Consequence of Sound and is a judge for Glastonbury Festival’s Emerging Talent Competition.
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