One might be inclined to stop reading this review as soon as they have read Geoff Barrow of Portishead’s description of Joe Volk. It reads as follows: ‘[He is] like Elliot Smith. He is just a very good songwriter. He’s got a really lovely voice. Not in a fucking James Blunt way. There’s a lot more to it.’
Still with me? Great, because though that is a behemoth of an endorsement, it’s not quite true to the entirety of Volk’s latest solo LP Happenings & Killings. The man sure does have a ‘really lovely voice’ and one can certainly start listening to this record without fearing anything in the way of You’re Beautiful, but there are a few problems that record label boss Barrow’s eloquent summary fails to address.
The Swizerland-based Bristolian worked with Barrow and Emmy nominated composer Ben Salisbury, the partnership behind the soundtrack to the stunning 2015 sci-fi flick Ex Machina, on this LP, which for the most part follows a basic acoustic-pop template but does display the odd dashes of experimentalism that can be explained by such varied and experienced contacts. Its stronger moments are certainly those towards the tail end of the album, as electronic sounds clash with the traditional folksy elements, but unfortunately such instances are few and far between.
These Feathers Count is arguably the track that leaves the biggest impression on the listener, as a simple, snare-driven drum beat keeps the tempo steadily high behind unusual electronic sounds and a powerful three-part harmony. The vocals tend to be the most impressive aspects of Happenings & Killings, whether that’s as a result of Volk’s octave-climbing prowess or the complexity of the backing arrangements, and on this track such technical brilliance matches up with an intriguing clash of sounds. The song finds itself somewhere between The Stereophonics and Radiohead, and it really works.
The closest the album comes to similar levels of sonic experimentation is the sample-heavy, almost ambient sounding Is Pyramid, as well as the darkly seductive The Circle, the complex drumbeats and synth sounds of which point to something greater, before disappointingly failing to progress in the track’s outro.
Otherwise, there’s little of interest here. The first few tracks are characterised by the same blandness found on countless indie-folk records of the past twenty years, Volk’s high pitched tones coming across as pleasant enough but with a little too much sincerity; he seems to command us to listen but what exactly is it he wants us to listen to?
Having released plenty of records throughout his career, this latest LP from Joe Volk will most likely find success with his more loyal followers. For newbies however, there is a plethora of decidedly better records in this now stagnant pool of folksy indie-pop singer-songwriters that are more than worthy of listeners’ attentions. Far from a disaster, but an equally long distance from being remotely noteworthy, Happenings & Killings is for completists only.
Happenings & Killings was released on 22 February 2016.