Portsmouth is not particularly known as the UK’s musical hotbed of talent, innovation or creativity. The fact that the city and its surrounding environs most recent high profile output was the dreaded Same Difference says it all.
So step forward The Dawn Chorus, who with an almost single handed conviction could change the perception of Portsmouth from a musical wasteland, to somewhere with ideas, passion and a willingness to look outside of its near island insularity. The city football team may be going down the pan, but with The Carnival Leaves Town, The Dawn Chorus give Portsmouth something to be proud of again.
Having already gained the endorsement of modern folk-punk hero Frank Turner, who provides guest vocals on the bands recent zestful and uplifting single Carnivalesque, The Dawn Chorus deliver a recording that provides joyous, melancholy and heartfelt twists and turns through song writing that veers between folkish acoustic subtlety and fervently big indie rock moments. The whole thing is then liberally coated with soaring trumpets, soft accordion and even fleeting ferocious stabs of electric guitar. There’s enough here to drag you in on first listen, but also enough complexity to make successive visits even more rewarding.
The album opens with the evocative accordion based fairground sounds of Enter: The Carnival. It’s a monumental piece of gypsy stomp. Images of the freakshow, the weightlifters, the acrobats and the high-wire walkers marching through dirty south streets appear in the musical mind as seething guitars clash with Arcade Fire styled masculine chants. Then before you’ve had time to catch your breath you’re bounding headlong into the decadent ska-rock-romp of The Guilt (video below). It’s an eager start and it’s just as well that things are slowed down a little with the more gentle Pacifists for a moments reflection, otherwise we’d probably be collapsing in a heap with musical exhaustion.
Besides being a collection of charismatic indie-folk-rock songs, the album is also loosely thematic. A number of the tunes concern a storytellers love of a girl called Antoinette, a trapeze artist who performs with the carnival. The accordion makes a further appearance to provide sustenance to the intimate nightcap strum of Carnival Sound, a song that could easily have drunk grown men putting their arms around each other and crying into their pints. “I can’t stand the thought of that carnival sound, the way that old Antoinette still pulls a crowd, while I’m breaking my back to stay in the black,” lead singer Kyle mourns sadly in his not nearly as nasal but slightly flat Conor Oberst styled vocal. “How I long to get back to the way things were, before the fame came and got the best of her,” he wistfully dreams later on the closing title track. Out of these heavyhearted tales there are songs that are surprisingly likeable; it seems that from the sadness comes pleasure.
So when the carnival has gone and the album is over, the lasting impression is of a body of work that may not be particularly fashionable in its sound, but succeeds by virtue of being a genuinely impressive collection of songs. Quite a show. Three cheers.