The real joy of Climbing Trees’ debut album Hebron (2013) lay in the record’s organic eclecticism; its brilliant collage of elemental folk-tales, cinematic instrumentals, urbane pop songs and back-porch ballads, made for one of the standout albums of the year. No sooner, though, had the band codified their hybrid form of pastoral pop music as “Cymrucana” than their pianist Matthew Frederick was declaring the group’s readiness to move on to pastures new. The band’s stated aim of trading-up their sui generis brand of roots music for a more robust and, it should be said, radio-friendly shtick, came as something of a surprise given just how perfectly nuanced a record Hebron had turned out to be.
It’s no accident, then, that Borders (produced and recorded under Jethro Chaplin’s watchful eye at Mwnci Studios) kicks off with a pair of straight-down-the-middle rock songs aimed at signposting the group’s intended direction of travel. Current single “Tracks” is propelled along by James Bennets’ clean-cut drumming and some muscular guitar work, while “Lost” boasts a chest-beating chorus designed to have festival goers punching the beery air all summer long. Both songs feature pianist Matthew Frederick on lead vocal and it’s indicative of a change of dynamic within the group that he plays such a central role on Borders. Having three singer / songwriters in the fold is one of the Trees’ great strengths, and whilst Frederick is always keen to emphasise the band’s collegiate approach to songwriting, it’s clear from the way that Borders evolves that his input has been crucial this time around.
It’s only on “Set in Stone” and the peppy “Amber”, slated to be the Pontypridd combo’s next single, that the Trees begin to sound like their old selves. This duo of heart-on-your-sleeve pop songs, featuring the wistful vocal of Martin Webb, are redolent of Hebron’s most romantic numbers “Aloisi” and “Under the Lindens” as well the mercurial, love-struck songs of Simon Aldred’s Cherry Ghost. Whilst “Caesar”, after a muted beginning, evolves into a pulsating, panoramic instrumental, it’s the dramatically re-imagined piano ballad “Fall” that proves to be the album’s real focal point. Part of the band’s live set for some while “Fall” is magically transformed, here, by the Trees’ towering harmonies and the ethereal playing of the Cambria String Quartet, into Borders’ spiritual centrepiece. The following track, the semi-instrumental “Coda” sounds, as its title might suggest, slight by comparison, though it’s rescued by a synthesised spasm of Morse Code and some druidic chanting before its elongated fade out.
The song that best reflects the Trees’ new, tough-minded approach is “Graves” one of the many highlights of last year’s excellent Welsh Rock for Refugees compilation album Reach Out. A cautionary tale about a boy stuck in a humdrum town, the song comes with a neat guitar lick, a rousing chorus and a grainy lead vocal from guitarist Colenso Jones (one half of the excellent Electro-Country duo, The Minerals). It’s a song, too, that further explores the theme of belonging that both “River Home” and “Gone to Sea” addressed so movingly on Hebron. The album comes to a close with the finely poised piano ballad “Heading South”, again featuring a vocal from Frederick which builds to a rather knowing ‘lighters-in-the-air’ climax and the intriguing, if all too brief, title track.
While Borders finds Climbing Trees painting in broader strokes than those used to sketch the acoustic love songs and narrative folk-ballads that defined the understated Hebron, there’s no doubting it’s an accomplished work in its own right. “Lost“, “Graves” and “Tracks” are homespun anthems, custom-built for careening along the Welsh coast at the height of summer with the window wound down and the volume zapped up. Borders, then, succeeds brilliantly on its own terms; as a melodic, harmony-coated variant of hard-boiled Valleys’ rock, it’s exactly the expansive, exhilarating album Climbing Trees set out to make.