Kudos to Dry The River. After getting signed to Sony Music last year, the London five-piece have finally been able to get a force behind them to help spread word of their name and their music. A few months ago, that lumbering, pissed-off looking shark on their debut album cover started popping up here and there, and it suddenly became clear that Dry The River were on course to being one of the next big things. With Sony behind them they were finally able to carve out that aspiringly big sound they’d been aiming for on their first two EPs, and have been delivering consistently during their live shows. This is folk music for the masses. People are getting tired of singing about how you “really fucked it up this time,” and it’s hard not to notice that Sony are trying their best to sell Dry The River as, at the very least, the sequel (or prequel – people love prequels these days) to Mumford & Sons. Not bad for a bunch of guys I mistook for roadies a couple of years ago.
And with a professional studio in their hands, lead vocalist Peter Liddle and his four fellow bearded chums really have made the most of the cards they have been dealt. Shallow Bed is a big album that places all its money on making every moment soar. Choruses are as huge as the sentiments in the lyrics, even when Liddle is talking about the mundane aspects of life. “We fight those demons day in and day out” he sings on “Demons” as a cymbal is ridden as much it can be without drawing too much attention to itself, refusing a moment of quiet contemplation to emerge. And that’s one of the niggling points about Shallow Bed, in that there are virtually no moments of relapse, and if they do appear, they aren’t far from a soaring chorus, or some other grand gesture; they’re loud, even when they’re being quiet. “Bible Belt” is a good example of an opportunity missed. On the EP of the same name from 2010, the song was a sombre number, which made the final lines more effective and even heart-wrenching at the best of times. But here it’s fitted out with too much: violins (“because they make everything sadder” a producer in the studio likely claimed), horns, more guitar than it needs, and dramatic drumming (“hey guys, can I hit my cymbal some more in this song?”). Consequently the emotional hook is gone, and when Liddle sings about meeting at “the 5:45,” it feels like the platform at the station will be crowded with people, because everyone will be there waiting for him.
All the studio shine isn’t bad at some points: “History Book” finds an agreeable middle ground between the warm and likeable take on The Chambers & The Valves EP and what could have been production overload, with an overall fuller sound and some additional Sufjan-esque horns; the riveting chorus on “New Ceremony,” complete with call and response vocals, and some string work which actually adds to the tracks momentum; and “Lion’s Den” where the band just make a racket for near enough four minutes, because when you’ve got the studio capabilities at hand, why the fuck not? Elsewhere the story isn’t so good, such as on “The Chamber & The Valves,” which sounds hurried and soulless, or final track “Family” which aims for another huge outro, but coming after the almost ferocious one on “Lion’s Den” the effect sounds lessened, and instead you find yourself wishing for a gentle purely acoustic number to bring the album to a close.
Let me be clear, though: I understand that this is the band making the music with the sound they’ve been wanting to make for years. They might come off a small town quintet (or, at least, they used to), but their aspirations are huge, like Fleet Foxes, but with Chris Martin in charge. They’ll make a perfectly fine replacement for Mumford & Sons, and with a track like “Weights & Measures” (which is beefed up to match the live version of it, and which also does have echoes of “Little Lion Man” in it), they’ll likely always have an audience. But it’s all just a shame it doesn’t sound really great: instead of charm you’ve got big dramatic gestures at every turn. And the production is nothing new – all the bells and whistles added in, and the loud sound are all staples of a folk-pop album, I suppose, but combined with the regular soaring choruses, it makes Shallow Bed sound excessive without actually being excessive. But hey, well done to them. I imagine it won’t be long before they’re playing to a stadium or two, and they can do so with the music and the sounds they’ve finally manage to capture. A success story is always good to hear – especially in the music industry – but it’s just a shame when a band loses the qualities that warmed you in them in the first place. Me? I’ll always remember them as those humble, charming guys whom I mistook for Bowerbirds’ road crew.