As someone who was born in Virginia and spent most of my life growing up in North Carolina, folk music is practically in my blood. I’ll listen to just about anything with a lilting acoustic guitar telling a story of workers or wanderers while lightly accompanied by a harmonica or banjo, but this means I also listen to a lot of twee folksy ballads, and it takes more than a catchy chorus to really catch my attention. You’ve really got to make me feel things.
Enter Oktoba, otherwise known as Chris Athorne, who’s Brighton residency further proves my theory that the United Kingdom and Ireland are spiritual cousins to Appalachia as far as music production goes. I don’t know what it is about the water or the guitar strings over there, but they just get it.
With his first album, Smoke Signals, having been released this past October, Oktoba recently put out a video for “Tongue Tied,” which I think is a great introduction to his style and what you can expect from the record:
While “Tongue Tied” isn’t my favorite track on the album (more on that in a minute) you should be able to get an idea of why I was already in love with Oktoba’s sound from first listen. It has all the right swell, all of the right poetry, and really makes you feel things. So what about the rest of the record?
All in all, my first impression was that Oktoba reminded me a lot of James Bay and Allman Brown, two artists I absolutely love. The biggest distinction right out of the gate, though? Whether it’s a result of the production or songwriting, these tracks sound a lot more simplified and a lot cleaner. That’s not a problem: it works well in the artist’s favor, and it really sells the sound. I also got a very strong John Smith vibe from a lot of the songs…and then noticed that a John Smith is credited as the second guitar on this album? I’m not sure yet if this is the same John Smith that I am a fan of, but if so, that is awesome, and makes for even more of a reason to love this record. [EDIT: I have confirmed that it is, in fact, the same John Smith! That is TOO COOL.]
The title track “Smoke Signals” opens the album in a way that reminded me very distinctly of listening to a band I’ve never heard of opening up a set at Shakori Hills (a folksy, hippie music festival in North Carolina, USA, for the uninitiated) and it immediately made me feel at home. “Something New” follows it and makes for an altogether pretty strong opening.
It’s at this point I should probably mention that “Aeroplane” was my first favorite track off of the album: I am someone who loves traveling and wandering, and this is a traveler’s anthem through and through. It also, like the tracks before it, includes a lot of references to the beach and the sea, which again, as someone who grew up next to the ocean it’s like this was written just for me. “On My Mind” carries on this motif too as it talks about the changing of the tides, and also feels a lot like it should be a James Bay track, which I promise is a good thing.
The first half of the album comes in very strong and very good, and “Run” gives us our token fast-paced song of the record with a track that reminds me vaguely of The Kooks as it opens, but folds into something that I might have put on the playlist I listened to when I first left North Carolina to move north: “we used to play upon the sands / building castles with our hands / when they crashed down, oh we’d build ’em tall“ and the chorus that echoes over like wheels rolling over the road: “when you walked, you should’ve run, run, run.” I’ve listened to this one at least three times while trying to write the rest of this review. Really. If you listen to no other song on this album, listen to “Run.”
The second half of the album remains kind of a hit or miss for me: if the first five tracks were released as an EP on their own I think it would have knocked us out of the park, and while the last five tracks are not bad and I do enjoy them, they don’t feel quite as strong to me as the first few. It might be just the positioning of the songs; I’ve complained before that I’m pretty picky about track placement so this might be a personal issue and not a detriment to the record as a whole, so take that for what you will.
“I’ll Be Fine” is a great opener for Act II though, and though “Wind Water Fire Stone” feels a bit like a typical folk duet, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing: there’s a certain formula to folk songs, and this one does it well, especially with the addition of Bo Lucas, who adds a a nice touch to the track.
I spoke a little about “Tongue Tied” above, but for such a great song with a beautiful swell at the end, it really does feel like a closer, so the few tracks that follow it feel almost like an encore of sorts. Which is a little jarring since the second to last track, “Sticks And Stones,” starts off a little slower than I would have anticipated, but it treats the idea of using old, familiar phrases to tell new stories very well: we’ve all heard the line that “sticks and stones will break my bones” before, but even for its strange placement on the album this song breathes new life into the concept, and the guitar work on it is absolutely beautiful.
“You To Me” wraps up the album with a simple sound, something a little dreary and haunting with a proper folksy optimism that still tells us tales of life by the shore, and ultimately serves as a pretty solid closer and a fair representation of the sound of the rest of the album. All in all, it might be one of my favorites, and is certainly my favorite part of the second half of the album.
In spite of the fact that the organization of some of the songs left me wanting more, I think that this is a fairly strong debut album, and certainly one that has given me some new favorite folk songs to listen to. If you like artists such as James Bay, John Smith, or Allman Brown, I think you’ll really enjoy the record and will find at least a few songs you’ll want to listen to over and over. I know I personally see Oktoba as an artist to watch in the new year, especially if any future tracks can inch out of that 4-minute window a little bit: the guitar work on this album was amazing, and I’d love to hear some longer songs that really let that shine.
If you’d like to listen to Smoke Signals, you can preview it for free on Soundcloud, as well as Bandcamp where you can also purchase the album for £7 GBP (€9.5 EUR or $10.30 USD). Smoke Signals is also available on iTunes if you’d like to support this blog with your purchase!
If you picked up a copy of the record or gave it a listen, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!
This post was originally published on mandarific.com.