Remember ‘nu-folk’? It was a label that actually served some descriptive purpose. ‘Nu-rave’ had nothing whatsoever to do with actual rave music, although was admittedly a damn sight snappier than ‘Nu-Vapid Electro Pop That Existed Solely To Soundtrack Rimmel Ads’, and of course ‘nu-metal’ exclusively conjures up images of Fred Durst performing the move that became his signature – angrily thrusting his crotch into the camera whilst spouting utter nonsense.
‘Nu-folk’, though – clunky a tag as it was – was used as an umbrella term for those acts that, cynically or otherwise, were drawing fairly superficial influence from folk music and applying it to their own pop palette. Since the emergence of that scene six or seven years ago, its primary participants have endured decidedly mixed fortunes; Laura Marling is turning out records of tremendous poise and delicacy with such frequency that it’s beginning to get a little boring, a bit like Barcelona at their Champions League-winning peak three or four years ago.
She also, through her breakup with frontman Charlie Fink, provided the basis for Noah and the Whale’s excellent The First Days of Spring, which displayed an early promise that would soon be curtailed when Fink presumably took a blow to the head and adopted a psuedo-American singing voice. Mumford and Sons, of course, have reached a level of commercial success outweighed by the burden of being the band that make Coldplay look adventurous; they’ve reached an unfashionable nadir that, you suspect, will likely see them overlooked even for an invitation to next year’s Tory party conference, probably in favour of Bastille.
Peggy Sue were a part of that scene too – albeit under the name Peggy Sue and the Pirates – and seem to have joined the likes of Johnny Flynn in emerging from it in relatively anonymous fashion. It won’t be widely known, then, that they’ve released two fine records since; 2010’s Fossils and Other Phantoms established the stormy blend of modern blues and folk that’s come to be their signature, before a quick-fire follow-up, Acrobats, expanded on that sound – more bite to the guitars, more menace to the vocals.
The three years between that record and Choir of Echoes probably represents a failure to strike while the iron was hot; there’s a sense that there’s lost time to be made up for here. A brief acapella intro, “Come Back Around”, seems as if it was placed in the opening slot to remind you just how potent an element of previous records the vocal harmonisation between Rosa Slade and Katy Young was.
Choir of Echoes has the same cohesive feel as the band’s past full-lengths, but that’s characterised this time around by warmer sonic textures; the percussion’s sharper and less distant, and there’s a denser, more layered guitar sound; those plucked, melodic lines that were such a key component of the sound of past records are still prevalent here, but they no longer sound quite so sparse. The chirpy “Figure of Eight” is a case in point, as is the galloping “Idle”.
The problem here is that, as much as I personally associate that guitar sound with previous Peggy Sue albums, anybody new to the band is far more likely to be put in mind of The XX, who themselves have spawned so many imitators that listeners are likely to find those simple hooks a little derivative at this point. It’s perhaps exacerbated, too, by hints of repetition over the course of the record’s slightly bloated forty-seven minute running time; the fairly limited range of instrumentation employed doesn’t quite have the legs to carry the album for that long.
In fact, the horn-driven closer, “The Errors of Your Ways”, provides a tantalising glimpse of what might’ve been, had the band been able to cast off the shackles a little; instead, Choir of Echoes is largely a retread of old ground. It’s perfectly lovely ground all the same – those harmonies, especially, remain as irresistible as ever – but I can’t help but feel I was hoping for a little more from Peggy Sue after such a long time away, however nice it might be just to have them around.