Flickering and flitting elegantly between traditional folk structures and contemporary lenses, Junkboy’s ‘Littoral States’ — out this week on Wayside & Woodland Recordings — traces generational lifelines and the coastal landscape of Sussex, finds Alistair Fitchett.
Beach walking is such a treasure. It is easy to take for granted when one grows up by the sea, when one’s mind is filled with thoughts of escape to places inland and urban: the bluster of crowds and the thrill of cultural connections so seductive and so much more preferable to the solace of space and Kerouac’s shefalying waves. Then again, Taking Things For Granted is in many respects the default setting for youth, and there is little point in reflecting on the inevitability of age other than to ruefully recognise that it comes to us all and that slipping free from the restrictions of our previous existences is a pleasure in itself. This, perhaps, is what generations have meant when saying ‘No Regrets’ since time immemorial and so on ad-infinitum into gaudy futures.
Except… well, No Regrets, certainly, but there are certainly too ghosts that haunt the liminal spaces of our everyday movements. Flickering presences slipping in from alternative timeframes. Those paths not taken or not even recognised as paths. Timeslips into possibilities endless and unimaginable: a bigger brighter world, if only. Such collapses in structure tread through our waking dreams and the slippery elusiveness of sleep alike. They are the shifting sands, the subconscious equivalent to that littoral space of the beach walk. And what do we remember? Everything and nothing.
From the mirror calm of early morning summer and a haar chill caressing cheeks as the sun glints through to the monstrous cacophony of winter gales and squalls spitting salt onto chapped lips; whitebait tossed to the sand from the surf catching the afternoon sun, glittering like tiny fragments of a mirror ball dashed on the dancefloor; milpreves migrating along the shoreline from cove to cove, carrying gateways to the land of the fae as they go. Staring at the sea and seeing Hiroshi Sugimoto visions as time elapses and retinas flare, giving the lie to David Lynch channelling John Ford’s advice to Spielberg about interesting horizon lines. Or white horses whipping across the wave tips as an Alfred Wallis fishing boat heads to harbour and the warmth of fire and brandy. Everything and nothing.
It’s all about loss, of course. Which is another way of saying it is all about the things we gain when contemplating loss, which are momentary and ultimately elusive but no less a valuable balm for all that.
This is the space that Junkboy tap into with their Littoral States album; a record that employs explorations of the shoreline as a means of coming to terms with personal loss. With roots in lockdown walks and the passing of their father, brothers Mik and Rich Hanscomb have built an album that traces generational lifelines and the coastal landscape of Sussex. Fittingly, this is captured in abstract terms; in musical forms that flicker and flit elegantly between traditional folk structures and contemporary lenses. Fittingly too the record finds a home on Wayside & Woodland, a record label that has, over the past decade and a half, quietly but solidly rooted itself in that liminal area between suburban sprawl and rural mythology. With a visual aesthetic that is equal parts John Myers, Paul Nash and Vaughan Oliver, Wayside & Woodland is a deceptively calm haven where minutely strange things happen.
So it is with Littoral States, as the brothers Hanscomb navigate coastal threads from the Bognor Regis of their father’s birth, through Worthing, Brighton, Newhaven and Seaford. Field recordings provide subtle textural backdrops to songs that inhabit a place where ancient superstitious myth and modern progressive thought meander around each other, trading occasional fleeting embraces of mutual attraction. Long term Junkboy collaborators Will Calderbank, Becca Wright, Marcus Hamblett and Owen Gillham provide cello, violins, trumpets, banjo and EBow to colour in the songs, whilst vocalist Hannah Lewis provides an occasional Sandy Denny ingredient to proceedings. The allusion to Fairport Convention is not unintentional of course, for Littoral States is certainly a record that places itself on the arc where Folk music is given a smooch of something altogether peculiar and reveals itself to be magically Other. On ‘Sea Captain’ Lewis’ voice follows a fairly traditional folk narrative, but on the terrific ‘Chase The Knucker’ (a legendary Sussex water dragon, I’m told) and ‘Witch Of The Watery Depths’ she dissolves mostly to a kind of abstract, restrained jazz improvisation with a Liz Fraser trembulation. It would have been easy to utilise this Siren song at more points throughout the album, and it is to the Hanscomb’s credit that they recognise the value of scarcity. Less is More.
Less Is More, indeed, and at just 32 minutes in length, the entire 10 track album is eloquently and admirably short. Repeated refrains bind many of the tracks together into a homogenous body of work, and whilst there are certainly no weak points, particular gems can be found in album opener ‘Cormorants At The Mouth Of The Ouse’ and ‘Cuckmere River Rises’. The former is all finger-picked notes and succulent strings weaving between each other like wraiths dancing round the Maypole, whilst the latter is a delicious midsummer cornflower blue meditative meander downstream. Both are as glorious little instrumental sketches of Sussex as you are likely to find anywhere, and should be filed next to John Nash paintings, or more pertinently perhaps those of Ivon Hitchens, whose semi-abstract approach marked him out as the Patrick Heron of the South East.
That fracturing abstraction of vision is, in the end, the most lasting reverberation from Littoral States. It is a record that gently demands repeated listenings, each one rewarded with tiny details that transport us to places half-remembered and partially, hypnotically obscured. Beach walking treasure, no less.
‘Littoral States’ is released on the Wayside & Woodland label this Friday.