A staggering 24 years after their debut album, Slinky, put Milltown Brothers on the map, this somewhat-elusive Lancashire outfit are back and on winning form.
A lot’s changed since their first spell of (admittedly moderate) fame, hits like Apple Green, Here I Stand and Which Way Should I Jump? having promised a bright future.
If they ever achieved their potential is debatable, but that first long player managed in excess of 100,000 sales worldwide. And while market changes suggest that won’t be matched, we can but hope. For fourth album Long Road certainly deserves attention.
It’s the self-same Milltown Brothers that started out, siblings Matt (vocals/guitar) and Simon Nelson (guitar) joined by Nian Brindle (drums), James Fraser (bass) and the returning Barney Williams (organ/ piano).
Following on from 2004 comeback Rubberband, the new album was recorded in Spain, where James Fraser was recently based, and a little nearer to home.
And that South East Spanish vibe, tempered by North West England earthiness, seems to have been translated into a country feel, with the help of the MB production team, namely Mark Jones and Coldplay-collaborator Mark Phythian.
There are elements of Tom Petty on the more mellow title track and lead-off single Long Road, the slide guitar hinting, rather fittingly, at those Notorious Byrd Brothers.
It’s an introspective album for sure, the opener perfectly encapsulating its over-riding themes – Matt ruminating on future concerns, but summoning up plenty of hope and love to see us through.
As with several tracks here, it’s a song to put a smile on the face and stoke up happy memories, a truly inspiring starting point that should provide ageless festival fare, encapsulating those moments when the sun finally comes out again, or sets somewhere in the distance.
Matt Nelson’s voice still has the boyish charm that first grabbed us back in the ‘90s, but there’s an added maturity that suits him, with Part of Me perhaps the link between first-time-round Milltown Brothers and today’s reinvigorated model.
A sparkling indie vibe suggests early Railway Children as much as formative R.E.M. or Sugar, an infectious chorus and Simon Nelson’s guitar licks enough to make the cynical sit up and take proper notice.
The more laid-back Bad Un has Western overtones, but for all its country noir and late Johnny Cash inflections it could as easily hail from a hidden corner of Nick Cave or Robert Forster’s back-catalogue, and is just the right side of miserable.
I mentioned a certain outfit from Athens, Georgia, and Michael Stipe and co. spring to mind again on the almost-anthemic Rockville, in what could be a belated tribute and follow-up to Reckoning’s penultimate track.
At least on paper, country shouldn’t really work from a band with a BB postcode, but Ireland’s The Thrills expertly pulled off a similar trick, effortlessly bridging that gap between American and Western European indie. And here again it works well.
Think indie country, swapping those sweeping Mid-West plains for the West Pennine Moors – maybe down to this 11-track opus for the most part being set down in Granada and worked on back in Oswaldtwistle.
On Portrait, another Red Rose outfit with stateside influences springs to mind, Starsailor, one of the bands that arguably went on to claim Milltown Brothers’ indie pop princes’ crown.
Matt’s vocals certainly pass for James Walsh’s in places, and Simon’s country guitar returns on Don’t Go Crying, a further track echoing The Thrills, albeit swapping Santa Cruz for Seville … or even Sabden.
Incidentally, its mid-’70s feel puts me in mind of Faces. If you doubt that, listen again, imagining Rod Stewart’s voice instead.
There’s more of a late-‘80s crossover pop to Hideaway, Nian Brindle’s driving drums fuelling arguably the closest echo to that Madchester scene sound this band skirted the edge of way back then.
Not for the first time, Matt’s vocals are Dylanesque, and talking of His Bobness, a band that once gave us a Byrdsy take on It’s All Over Now Baby Blue channel a bit of Roger McGuinn on Solitude.
In fact, throughout this album, elements of under-playing are used to great effect. Imagine the laidback Atlantic indie folk of Bon Iver with Bon Scott singing (admittedly at his most restrained), on a long player alternating between acoustic and power chords.
Just when we think we have the 2015 Matt Nelson sussed, comes a curveball – the radio-friendly Boy Kisses the Girl‘s near-helium tone of its verse offset by a deeper, altogether-catchy chorus.
Meanwhile, Daniel Lanois-era Adam Clayton-style bass underpins it all. It should be a hit of course, but I won’t hold my breath. There is after all very little justice in this world.
The mightily-fragrant Perfume again takes us to a different plane, Fraser’s bass and Brindle’s beat carving out a little ’70s boogie, the Detroit Spinners-like backing vocals working it (darling), putting an inspirational spin on the daily grind.
And that takes us nicely to the denouement, the affirming Alive, a closing lullaby that also fits that festival mood, Barney Williams’ simple piano and Matt’s dreamy lyric and vocal suggesting a reflective, feelgood statement of sorts.
What’s more, this is a band seemingly averse to over-egging the pudding, the song lengths throughout leaving us hungry for more, with no tune over-played and no lyric over-wordy.
You could be critical, wondering why it’s taken so long for Milltown Brothers to fulfil the potential they undoubtedly showed early doors.
But let’s just be thankful they finally came back, and are now sharing their fine songcraft with us again.
For a writewyattuk interview with Milltown Brothers’ frontman Matt Nelson, from May 2015, head here.
And for details of how to get your hold of the new Milltown Brothers LP, band news and forthcoming dates, head to their Facebook page here.