London’s Still Corners, a two-piece consisting of producer/songwriter Greg Hughes and vocalist Tessa Murray, first emerged in 2008, with their debut EP Remember Pepper? garnering some early acclaim. In the years since, they’ve gradually shifted from a slightly lo-fi electro-infused chamber pop to a more dreamy electropop sound, with Murray’s wispy voice and the late-night comedown vibes the common feature of much of their material. Slow Air comes as their fourth full-length album, and perhaps their most polished and synth-driven to date.
The album sees the duo continue in the more polished electropop direction of their last two records, with a little more ‘organic’ instrumentation than before – crisp acoustic guitars make themselves known on a number of songs alongside electric guitars and more eclectic choices like marimbas. The songs, on the whole, feel more distinct and varied than on previous efforts, even if some of them do feel a little formulaic and predictable – almost every song has a guitar solo of some sort, with not every one of those particularly necessary. At times melodies and effects feel thrown in for seemingly little reason than just for the sake of it, to fill space. But the mood feels slightly more varied too – while still mostly set in the wistful nighttime, some of these songs do have a more distinct sense of urgency and emotion. Truth be told, the only song that doesn’t come off is “Fade Out”, which takes the washed out feel a bit too far and crosses over into indifference, making for the least memorable song on the record.
The first three songs appear to form a sort of loose “escape” trilogy – opened by the fittingly titled “In the Middle of the Night”. It kicks things off in a familiar place, with a nocturnal ambiance, with Murray’s voice soaked in reverb and delay effects over a mid-tempo strut, textured with a staccato filtered electric and clear acoustic guitars, embellished with layered synth textures. While the lyrics are distant and washed out, as if appearing in a dream, there is a sense of some urge to escape, hypnotised, “in search of a sound,” which leads in nicely to “The Message”. Carried in with the sound of rain and a dreary guitar bend, the song reads like an impulsive escape. Though the instrumentation is more uptempo and lush, the song on the whole is confused and unsure, almost grey – Murray’s vocal in the chorus resembling a more wispy Lana Del Rey. The hazy escape gives way to the regret and melancholy of “Sad Movies”, seemingly the aftermath. Though its lyrics are somewhat banal and clichéd, the song effectively conveys the aimlessness and loneliness one goes through after the end of a relationship, backed by an appropriately melodramatic instrumentation.
The record is also broken up by two instrumental pieces – and while the interludes on some of their previous records were short pieces, these two fancy themselves more as fully-fledged songs. “Welcome to Slow Air”, which follows the opening trilogy, is actually the album’s longest song. Set against a backdrop of rainforest ambiance, some searching marimbas emerge, filled out with pretty piano arpeggios and washy guitar chords, building into a decent sonic wallpaper. It’s a piece that could’ve worked fine at two, maybe three minutes, but at five and a half it starts to turn into irritating stock nature program music. Better is “Long Goodbyes”, which draws the album to a close with an odd, watery synth drone accentuated by a shrill synth guitar. It ends up sounding like the slightly hypnotising, surreal DVD menu music playing on loop in the night, to a film fallen asleep to halfway through.
“Dreamlands” and “Whisper” later take us back to the night, or at least an impending one. They are really something like two sides of the same coin. The former follows the propulsive single “Black Lagoon” as the destination of that song’s trip. It’s a more mid-tempo and mysterious piece, heavy with anticipation for the falling night and taken out by an appropriately fiery guitar solo. “Whisper” evokes something similar, but sees the tension from “Dreamlands” carried over and amplified into something altogether more dark and sinister, the night now having fallen. It’s the only time the album really crosses over into this territory, with the insistent stomp of the rhythm and glassy arpeggios evoking an ominous and claustrophobic atmosphere.
“Black Lagoon”, well-placed around the middle, was unsurprisingly released as a single – it is really the point where the album takes off for its second half and easily the most catchy song thus far. The song is really something like a second part to “The Trip” from two albums ago, with the same driving, insistent rhythm and constant sense of motion. It has a certain road trip vibe, though it’s a darker, more urgent counterpart to that song’s more wondrous and carefree feel. While “Black Lagoon” is an immediate standout, there is another which comes in right at the end to steal the title of best song – “The Photograph”. A starry-eyed ballad and the most 80s sounding moment on the album, it evokes a widescreen melancholy, steeped in an overwhelming nostalgia and reminiscence, with lush, vintage synth textures. Murray is at her most fragile and tender in the verses, with her more detached vocal in the choruses like a distant voice from a memory calling back. The song also has the best guitar solo on the album – it’s perhaps the only one that actually feels like it has emotional weight and purpose – as an outpouring of the intense longing conveyed during the song.
With all that said, Slow Air may well just be Still Corners’ best effort yet. While it’s hardly exceptional and still has some of the pitfalls of their earlier material, the songwriting on the whole is stronger and the album is helped by what feels like a more unified, cohesive structure – the songs themselves filled out by more varied and colourful arrangements. If they continue to take more risks with their songwriting and push their sound in new, more imaginative directions, as hinted at with songs like “Whisper”, they could well do something even more interesting. But for now, Slow Air is a mostly solid, occasionally standout record.
Slow Air is released Friday 17th August via Wrecking Light Records.