Album Review: littlebow – Three

by Thomas Blake

When a group comes along toting flutes, harps and clarinets and allowing themselves to be described as neoclassical, it is all too easy to dismiss them as wispy purveyors of twee, unchallenging ephemera. But let’s get this straight from the beginning: for all its surface chamber-folk pleasantness, littlebow’s latest album is a thing of quietly experimental, even uncompromising, beauty.

Three is – you guessed it – littlebow’s third album, and their first on new label Rural Colour. It picks up where 2013’s rather wonderful Pi Magpie left off: opener The Last Summer Of The Century’s flute template circles and repeats, creating a liminal landscape that owes almost as much to 1970s pastoralia as it does to the techniques of modern composition. If hauntological serialism wasn’t a thing, it is now.

Other tracks show the influence of jazz – the shifting time signatures of The Damned Erudition Of Damian O’Hara,  for instance – while others, like the sweet,  harp and birdsong-drenched Some May Transition carry the distinct whiff of prog or krautrock, like a rural Faust jamming with Joanna Newsom. And in fact it is the addition of the harp – courtesy of new member Brona McVittie, who joins regulars Katie English and Keiron Phelan – that has really seen the group evolve. Already impossible to pin down, the range of influences has become even broader, and the sound has grown in multiple directions – it is fuller, folkier and more liquid, but it is also more percussive and often more immediately engaging.

McVittie brings something else to the table, something wholly new: her singing. This is heard to great effect on Too Green, These Widow’s Weeds, which mixes fluty jazz with traditional song. And to add to make things even more impressive, it’s sung in Manx, a welcome outing for one of the more frequently overlooked minority languages in these isles.

But perhaps the best two tracks on the album are its simplest and its most complex. The former, The Singing Sands, is a wonderfully gauzy combination of keys, plucked guitar and flutes, while the latter, The Swing That Creaks For The Child That Weeps, is an altogether more challenging beast. It sees littlebow at their most song-based. Or at least that’s how it begins. It soon develops into something that is at once highly experimental (the whole thing is a twelve-minute musical palindrome) and peculiarly immersive. The uneasy flutes combine classical motifs with an improvisational, free-folky sensibility. Bookended by childlike verses influenced by dream-pop and indie girl-groups, it is arguably their most exploratory and inventive piece to date, and probably their most beguiling. It forms something of a centrepiece to an album that is both gentle and bold, and confirms littlebow as one of the most innovative and unclassifiable groups around.