Graded on a Curve:
The Room in the Wood, The Room in the Wood

Liverpool’s The Room in the Wood features vocalist Dave Jackson and guitarist-bassist Paul Cavanagh, and their project’s self-titled debut marks the first time they’ve worked together since the breakup of their noted post-punk outfit The Room back in 1985. Both have been musically active since, so the limited vinyl’s 11 songs (a dozen on the CD) show no traces of rust as the contents imbue a mature post-punk-descended melodic rock with folk and acoustic blues influences. Altogether, it’s a winning combination, and it’s out June 22 through the reignited A Turntable Friend Records.

I first heard The Room long after they’d called it a day, during one of my periodic dives into the labyrinthine nooks of the post-punk wave, with my lingering impression of a solid band with a handful of great songs (maybe the greatest being “Things Have Learnt to Walk that Ought to Crawl”) and a few characteristics in common with their country’s indie pop impulse.

If critically adored while extant (at least reportedly so), in the years since they’ve become somewhat underrated, though far from forgotten; the high-volume discography of the post-punk retrospective label LTM holds two CD collections of The Room’s work, one a Best of (No Dream) and the other an LP/ mini-album combo (In Evil Hour/Clear!)

After the breakup Dave Jackson went on to sing and write songs in Benny Profane along with a bunch of other bands and projects, while Paul Cavanagh took part in a slew of activities as well, amongst them recording solo as Cabin in the Woods. The Room in the Woods finds them rejoining forces, but in a positive development, not attempting to fall back into the motions of their former band.

Far from it. For starters, where Jackson once favored the bold emoting that was common to many an outfit on the tuneful side of the post-punk spectrum, in opener “Greedy Stars” he offers a more relaxed approach, the warmth of his delivery well-matched with tasteful instrumentation from Cavanagh, Colin George Lamont on drums, and Andy Wilson on organ; Nathalie James and Mary McCombs offset Jackson’s lead with some sweet backing.

It’s partly the deep tenor of Jackson’s voice that has drawn comparisons to Nick Cave, Tindersticks, and Bill Callahan, but on the whole “Greedy Stars” is a strong hunk of advanced guitar-pop (mildly reminiscent of Felt or the Go-Betweens) with the singing dabbling with a croon that brings the young Scott Walker to my mind.

A nice beginning, but with “Magical Thinking” they waste no time in shifting gears into a decidedly guitar-funky zone (with a touch of desert blues in Cavanagh’s playing) as Jackson’s vocals ruminate on the wide breadth of spirituality as a coping mechanism. And so, the post-punk roots are even more apparent (a comparison to The Fall is not unwarranted), but with a high level of finesse and pop savvy.

With “Raven Girl” The Room in the Woods take a folky turn that justifies the comparison to estimable Brit guitarist Bert Jansch, though it comes with a segue into a passage of heavier rock, and then “False Friend” dips into ’80s pop auteur territory; me thinks fans of Scritti Politti, Jazz Butcher, and again, Felt will be very pleased.

If all this seems like maybe an overabundance of range, coherence is maintained through a reliable focus on the talents of Jackson and Cavanagh (they share songwriting credits throughout), with “Grey Wolf Lullaby” finding the two meeting in a dark Brit-folky place; the fingerpicking flows, but there’s enough pop in the vocals to steer matters clear of approximation. Alistair Ligertwood’s cello is a nice touch.

Cavanagh brings a smidge of noir to Jackson’s loquaciousness in “Sensation,” while “Sky Pool” carries a classic pop song structure (definitely pre-Beatle, and through the wordless backing of James and McCombs, somewhat redolent of Exotica) into a comfortably strange place. “Snowblind” is again reminiscent of the ’80s pop auteurs (except we have two of them here, a sorta Powell and Pressburger thing) in its neo-pop sensibility; every time it’s played thus far, I’ve thought of Bacharach.

It’s an atmosphere that extends into “Time Machine,” though on the CD, “Vermillion Sands” sits between them, swinging into a more straightforward pop-rock mode, but with sturdy (and borderline flashy) guitar throughout as the lyrics continue to paint vivid pictures. “Nothing is Real” finds Cavanagh’s folky picking wedded to Jackson’s poppish execution once more, with the combo spiked with rock distortion in its midsection.

Up to this point, there’s been accompaniment on each of The Room in the Wood’s tracks, which often reinforces a band environment, but “Snakeways” scales back to just the duo for a pleasant folk-pop close. If Jackson and Cavanagh’s rekindled musical relationship makes no disguise of their post-punk past, it also doesn’t rely on it as a crutch, and it ultimately registers like two guys who wanted to get together and cut a record predominantly for their own enjoyment. This may lessen the impact a bit, but in not trying to take over the world, this collection exudes its own charm.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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