Album review: Keiron Phelan – Peace Signs

by Thomas Blake

The songs on Peace Signs take their time. They’re not long, but it feels almost like they are evolving as you listen. In New Swedish Fiction (which sounds a bit like a meeting of minds between Neil Hannon and Richard Hawley) unexpected rhymes – ‘new Swedish fiction’/’estuary diction’ – emerge over time to catch you by surprise. The title track channels a Stuart Staples-esque vocal and a prettily melancholic piano arrangement to create a quietly moving monument to a relationship.

Slapp Happy, Robyn Hitchcock and Andy Partridge are touchstones in the wonderful Satellite Hitori, the album’s lead single and as sunny a piece of off-kilter chamber pop as you could wish for, while Song For Ziggy is like the Ram-era McCartney at his most fun.

Although Peace Signs is decidedly more song-based than much of Phelan’s recent work, it’s not without its neoclassical flourishes or moments of sonic experimentation: a disarming flutter of flutes here, a beautiful, breathless harp there. There are nods to his love of Japanese music (the evocative Mother to Daughter Poem) as well as that rich vein of English songwriting that runs from Ray Davies, through Martin Newell to more recent artists like David Jaycock.

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Phelan’s supporting cast is extensive and impressive, and includes highly-regarded harpist Brona McVittie, Dollboy supremo Oliver Cherer and former Hefner multi-instrumentalist Jack Hayter. This explains how he can go from bustling Americana instrumentals (the imaginatively titled Country Song, which is not unlike Bob Dylan’s soundtrack work) to sinuous chamber-folk songs based on Chaucer and sung in Middle English (Canterbury).

Long-term fans of Phelan’s work with littlebow, State River Widening and Smile Down Upon Us will be aware of the breadth of his influences and the diverse scope of his output. What is so impressive about Peace Signs is how he has managed to condense his preoccupations into a coherent and immediately accessible set of songs without jettisoning any emotional or melodic freight. It is by turns fun and moving, and always exceptionally executed.

Peace Signs is out now on Gare du Nord

Photograph by Angela Coniam