Album review: Lavinia Blackwall – Muggington Lane End

by Thomas Blake

From what we already know about Lavinia Blackwall, its tempting to make certain assumptions regarding the content of her debut solo album. As a vocalist in folk-rock favourites Trembling Bells she was a vital part of their unique sound and their often thrilling live presence, a classically trained soprano turned purveyor of pastoral psychedelia. With that in mind, and given Muggington Lane End’s evocative title and artwork, we might want to make a few guesses about its songs: there’ll be a big dollop of Sandy Denny in there, and maybe some bucolic Village Green-era Kinks, a dash of Donovan.

 

And for the most part, we wouldn’t be far off the mark. Opening track Nothing Is Wasted, for example, has all the hallmarks of classic Sandy Denny, right down to the winning combination of melancholic piano and folk-rock backing band. And even when it gets weird and wonderful – lyrics about mindfulness, a chorus that evokes faded fairground Edwardiana, an unexpected crunch of electric guitar – the obvious influences are all still there. But to dismiss it as an exercise in nostalgia is missing the point, because the way Blackwall has put all those elements together is highly original and highly accomplished.

There are surprises at every turn. There is a bounce to Troublemakers that recalls the Beatles and nineties Britpop, with the added bonus of some Sarah Records style guitar jangle, while the songcraft is worthy Oranges and Lemons-era XTC. The infectious country pop of Ivy Ladder conceals a tale of spooked oneiric nostalgia.

That wonderful voice gets plenty of exposure too, particularly on the classic folk rock balladry of songs like The Way That She Laughed, All Seems Better and the lovely, loping Keep Warm, which is where the Sandy Denny comparisons ring truest. There is a hint of darkness running through the record as well: the elegiac beauty and simplicity of Hold On To Your Love is tempered by its refrain of ‘death always comes to soon.’

But for the most part this an album of welcome air and sunlight, condensed in the delicious bubblegum of Waiting For Tomorrow (which sounds like the Monkees fronted by Maddy Prior) and John’s Gone, with its pleasing Mr Blue Sky vibe. There is a freedom to these songs, but also a tight instrumental cohesion, which makes the fact that they were recorded live – and mostly in a single take – all the more impressive.

As a member of Trembling Bells, Blackwall was adept at mixing a generous amount of experimentalism with all the retro sounds, and while it may seem like Muggington Lane End is rooted firmly in a bygone musical age, multiple listens unearth moments of strangeness and genuine inventiveness that are the hallmarks of a truly gifted songwriter. The brooding piano breakdown that comes halfway through closing track When Will All Come To Light (and precedes the album’s most startling and stunning moments) hints at the possibility of weirder and wilder things to come, but for now Muggington Lane End is perfect as it is: a much-needed, brilliantly sung and expertly crafted collection of summery folk-pop.