“Save the planet, kill yourself … it’s the least that you could do,” The Rails sing, slightly tongue in cheek, on one of the standout tracks on their third release Cancel The Sun. It’s a lovely folk-rocker with shimmering electric guitars and the sweet vocal harmonies of Kami Thompson and James Walbourne, the married songwriters at the core of this British group.
Those familiar with Thompson’s family background – she’s the daughter of gloom-and-doom folk rockers Richard and Linda Thompson – won’t be surprised at this black humor in her writing. It’s a trait that seems to be in her DNA.
“Everyone is so convinced that if they make some minor amendment to their lives and everyone else does the same, then everything will work out,” she says. “Actually, if everyone just topped themselves, problem solved. It’s not the most poetic argument. And, obviously, I don’t want anyone to kill themselves. I’m encouraging people to look at things slightly differently. Without killing themselves.”
Thompson and Walbourne, who’s played guitar with Son Volt, The Pretenders, and The Pogues, progress to a more hard-edged sound with a little more of a rock element on Cancel The Sun. Which is great because Walbourne is quite the guitarist. And their team approach to songwriting has resulted in some real gems.
The opener “Call Me When It All Goes Wrong” kicks off like something from Cracker circa 1995, but the poppy melody and chugging guitars betray some decided Pretenders influence. Walbourne really layers on the electric guitars on “The Inheritance,” with Kami singing the response part of the call-and-response lyrics about a love that’s run its course, “My head says run, my heart says stay.” “Ball And Chain” takes a similarly jaundiced view of love, built around some killer riffs and those vocal harmonies. Walbourne sings lead on “Waiting On Something,” which comes off as a particularly English type of song with its jaded view of relationships; its lyrics would fit pretty well on a Richard Thompson album, especially the bridge: “Is it all a game of chance? / A consequence of idle hands? … ”
The Rails are still firmly entrenched in English folk, though, and there’s plenty of variety in the styles and arrangements here. Probably the most traditional of the lot is “Mossy Well,” with Walbourne singing lead. It’s a somber lyric of an old fellow looking back on a disappointing life and instructing his listeners to drown him in the titular well. Among the superb arrangements by director Stephen Street, this one stands out.
“Dictator,” sung by Thompson, is a wry, nearly bitter indictment of her own generation and its disengagement from participation in their own governance. It’s also a gently swaying waltz with layers of plucked acoustic guitars and beautifully harmonized humming. The whole Thompson family loves a good country song, and “Something Is Slipping My Mind” is a good country song with harmonies worthy of the Everlys.
The album winds up on a double punch of somber folksong reflection: James sings lead on “Leave Here Alone,” another swaying waltz complete with accordion, its lyrics pondering the impermanence of the human condition. And the title song with Kami in lead wraps it up in even more somber style: “Cancel the sun / Hello Armageddon,” which turns out to be more about personal loss than planetary apocalypse. But isn’t that how a deep personal loss always feels at the time?
As an album Cancel The Sun has a more pop-friendly feel to it than their previous release Other People. The arrangements and production have just enough sophistication to them to set them above simple folk fare, but the words always stand out as timely, thoughtful and important.
(Thirty Tigers, 2019)