Album review: The Left Outsides – Are You Sure I Was There?

Album artwork

Words by Grey Malkin

Alison Cotton and Mark Nicholas, The Left Outsides, follow quickly on the heels of their beautifully bleak live opus ‘A Place To Hide’ with a new long player, ‘Are You Sure I Was There?’, a considered and finely wrought masterwork that may well be their finest album to date. Sitting comfortably alongside previous outings, such as the gorgeous folk tapestry of ‘All That Remains’ or the psychedelically gothic hue of ‘The Shape Of Things To Come’, this new work adds a truly cinematic edge to The Left Outsides already considerable command of atmosphere and storytelling. It must surely only be a matter of time before their work finds itself as the soundtrack to a film equally, by turns, as forbidding, ambitious and touched with cold beauty. ‘The Wind No Longer Stirs The Trees’ opens the album with determined, steely intent; Cotton’s voice, initially alone, is quickly framed by insistent, chiming Velvet’s style guitars and sweeping, filmic violin.

Alternating between strident tones and a more hushed, melancholic timbre, the essence and strengths of The Left Outsides are here ably condensed within this one song. Nicholas takes the lead vocals on the 60’s tinged ‘Only Time Will Tell’, tense strings adorning some genuinely electrifying guitar work, not unlike if Syd Barrett had briefly joined Fairport Convention in some alternate timeline or universe. ‘Séance’ (originally from the ‘Help The Witch’ compilation album) slows the pace, a mournful madrigal that chills the bone to such an extent that you can almost see your breath whilst listening, whilst the equally sombre ‘As Night Falls’ is led in to the sound of church bells and weeping violin, culminating in a twilight lament that lingers with the listener long after the end of the song. ‘Things Can Never Be the Same Again’ follows, the widescreen cries of the slide guitar and Cotton’s haunting delivery evoking a particularly spectral David Lynch film. Suggestive of monochrome scenes of endless night skies over the desert, this would be the perfect soundtrack to an especially noir and unsettling road movie.

The Left Outsides

Next, ‘November On My Mind’ comes on like a wintry ‘California Dreaming’, a brief but perfect piece of icy chamber folk. ‘The Stone Barn’ is potentially the brightest of all the jewels on this album, a stately ballad replete with buzzing guitars and ghostly harmonies that bleed atmosphere, and is surely a future classic in the making. Indeed, one can imagine ‘Are You Sure I Was There?’ appearing in ‘albums you must own’ lists decades from now, its timeless and infectious moods and careful sonic details pored over and beloved by future generations. ‘Between The Lines’ is a case in point, a deceptively simple and melancholy slice of baroque folk pop which is in fact a layered and beautifully adorned gem, from Cotton’s spellbinding backing vocals to the molten bursts of guitar that punctuate the hum of harmonium and cascading violin. ‘My Reflection Once Was Me’, a studio version of the centrepiece from the in concert ‘A Place To Hide’, is by turns breathtaking and terrifying, a frozen slice of processionary acid folk that recalls Stone Angel or Steeleye Span at their peak, as well as at their darkest. By contrast, ‘A Face in The Crowd’s witchy electrified folk pop is lighter hued, an electrified but gentle wash of buzzing guitars, trembling strings and warm vocal harmonies. Finally, closer ‘Pictures of You’ is brim full with a warm, sepia tinted nostalgia, piano notes underscoring a series of genuinely heartrending guitar runs and Nicholas’s plaintive voice.

Not just another fine entry in The Left Outsides already considerably impressive canon of releases, ’Are You Sure I Was There?’ is also a tangible step forward in marrying this special band’s icy grandeur and cinematic capabilities, to produce music that truly soars and takes the listener somewhere not just in terms of sound, but also visually. The Left Outsides have always carried emotional heft with their writing, but here their music goes several stages deeper in its transportive and immersive power, conjuring imagery and entire worlds for the listener. It is genuinely exciting to think where they might go next, but in the meantime, ‘Are You Sure I Was There?’ is essential winter listening.

Available from Cardinal Fuzz/Feeding Tube Records on CD and vinyl as well as on download

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