Villages “Dark Island”

Icon Brother Music, 2023

Cape Breton’s former indie-rockers dive deeper into lush, Celtic-inspired folk-rock.

Band of Horses, Vetiver, Fleet Foxes, Midlake, Fruit Bats and, most recently, Bonny Light Horseman have all successfully worked out their own pathways between indie-rock and folk so now it’s Cape Breton’s Villages turn to show their chosen path. Formed by four friends while still at school and calling themselves Mardeen, the earlier version of the band enjoyed local success and wider critical acclaim. Reacting against the internationally renowned Cape Breton trad scene, the band was initially drawn towards the grungier Seattle sound and Scottish bands like Teenage Fanclub and Belle and Sebastian. But a late-night trip down memory lane found the band enjoying singing along to much-loved songs from one of their homeland’s favourite bands, The Rankin Family. Singer, Matt Ellis recalls, “I remember saying to the rest of the band that we need to write something that evokes the sound of home.” From that night, the band found themselves steadily heading deeper into their Cape Breton roots, going so far as to form a new band, still with the same members but much more focused on the Celtic influences they’d grown up. The new direction meant a new name… Villages.

Dark Island’ is their second album as Villages and thematically it’s a declaration of love and appreciation of the simpler life in the rugged, natural beauty of their remote island. The eleven songs are beautifully produced by Joshua Van Tassel (David Myles, Great Lake Swimmers, Fortunate Ones), the playing is uniformly excellent and the songs themselves never really dip in quality across the whole album. There’s a big, sweeping sound to the album, with the bass, drums and guitars providing a solid indie-rock platform, with the Celtic influence evident in the mandolin and fiddle playing and the soaring melodies but, most of all, in the remarkable voice of singer, Matt Ellis.

Ellis can hold his own as a vocalist with any of his indie-rock peers and even surpass many of them – he has a lovely tone and an impressive vocal range. However, with Villages, he’s embraced Celtic-style vocal ornamentation with considerable skill and gusto. His control is very impressive and it helps set both him and the band apart. But striking as it is, it can also be a distraction. One could assume that these Celtic vocal ornamentations resulted from traditional singers looking to put their own individual stamp on very familiar, well-known folk tunes. But with Villages playing their own original material, do these already seductive and sweeping melodies need the same level of ornamentation? It must just come down to personal taste – and many listeners will find Ellis’ vocal treatment charming and evocative, but others might find it a bit too much.

That Celtic fervour manifests itself in another way that might also divide opinion. In the studio, swept up in the excitement of making great music with your bandmates, it would be totally understandable to let out the odd euphoric whoop or yelp. But if the whooping or yelping gets carried away it could start to grate a bit once you’ve listened to the album a few times. On ‘Dark Island’, there is quite a lot of joyous whooping and yelping but they might just have strayed over the line. It’s hard to get the balance right but perhaps too little is better than too much. Of course, some listeners might well think otherwise.

The band’s move into their own take on Celtic-inspired indie rock is still relatively recent but you can feel their enthusiasm and energy across every song. Minor quibbles aside, this is a fine album featuring an outstanding singer and you could bet good money on Villages being a great live band.

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