William Blake's "green and pleasant land" may be vanishing as fast as Britain's developers can pave it, but British folk-rock seems to retain its pastoral idyll no matter how much modernity you throw at it. Starless & Bible Black, a new trio from Manchester, cadged their name from Dylan Thomas' 1954 play, Under Milk Wood, and their eponymous debut seems drawn from England's rich earth and folk music traditions. But there are enough differences between the band and their forebears that Starless & Bible Black doesn't sound derivative, though you can trace their roots easily enough. The trio is comprised of two home-studio rats -- Pete Philpson and Raz Ullah -- and French-born singer Helene Gautier; the sonic alchemy lends the record its modern feel, while her influence makes the music a bit like an audio Chunnel ride between the pastures of Kent and Pas de Calais' wheat fields. Songs like "Hermoine" and "b.b." are kin to surging Liege & Leaf-era Fairport Convention, even if the narratives don't sound particularly Chaucerian or Hardy-influenced. Others -- "Time Is for Leaving" and "Tredog," for instance -- are gentle acoustic vignettes closer in spirit to the modern rustic sounds of Adem or James Yorkston. Those songs are built like trellises: finger-picked guitar, banjo, glockenspiel, winds, and brushed skins augmented by carefully placed electronic glitches and synth washes. The loops and samples typically creep into bridges and outros to make their presence known, though on occasion a synth roar creates memorable contrast, like low-flying jets tearing over a green countryside. Sitting atop the bed of acoustics and electronics is Gautier, who slips into her native tongue once or twice but otherwise keeps to an appealing, heavily accented English. She can sound wraith-like or husky, like Francoiz Breut channeling Sandy Denny, especially on "Hermione," which is sung in French. Some of the more ethereal songs blend together, and the lyrics often float past innocuously, so it's the more robust cuts that leave the deepest impression. "The Bitter Cup" (a traditional tune often attributed to Billy Childish) is a cautionary tale about the perils of alcohol that Starless coats in a sinister drone, and album opener "Everyday and Everynight" has a rousing rock bridge. But it's "b.b." that best contrasts the band's gentle and experimental sides: horns, synth blasts and guitar feedback melding seamlessly in a crescendo that would seem to point the way forward for this promising band.
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AllMusic Review by John Schacht