Wednesday, October 25, 2023

When Rivers Meet - Aces Are High

Last week, in case you didn’t notice, When Rivers Meet’s third album Aces Are High gate-crashed the Top Ten of the UK Album Chart.  Now, in these digital, stream-orientated times, the charts aren’t really the kind of measure of success that they were in days of yore.  But still, it’s quite an achievement for a husband-and-wife duo whose modus operandi is entirely independent, and whose oeuvre is a spin on blues-rock.
Mind you, the two tracks that most immediately offer justification for their chartbusting status aren’t rockers at all.  ‘Golden’ and ‘By Your Side’ are both ballads, and they both hit the bullseye with a resounding whisper, as it were.  ‘Golden’ opens with quiet vocals from Aaron Bond, over
When Rivers Meet - In through the in door
Pic by Rob Blackham
simple acoustic strumming, the sound sweetening as Grace Bond arrives to harmonise on a melody that may not be entirely original, but is still a delight.  They have the courage to take it right down in order to muster light and shade, and though they stir some minimalist piano and drums into the mix, it’s the subtle vocal arrangement that hogs the limelight.  ‘By Your Side’ is a love song that begins with hushed, harmonised vocals and relies on its simple, lovely melody and sensitive, poetic lyrics to carry the day, framed by sparse backing and some twinkling guitar.  They really are good in this softer vein, as they've demonstrated before.
When they rock on this album though, it’s often with a heavier, less bluesy intent.  The opening ‘Infected’ sets forth with an angle-grinding riff and thudding mid-tempo drums, the latter courtesy of producer Adam Bowers, ahead of a shuddering pre-chorus, before Grace Bond serenades like a siren on the sweeter chorus.  And the following ‘See It All Before’ is all ceremonial chanting, doomy Sabbath-like chords, and a Bond femme vocal like something risen defiantly from the grave.
For my money they’re better when they lighten things up a bit.  ‘Play My Game’ may still be mid-tempo, but its staccato guitar is complemented by more fluid drums and bendy bass, and the moaned backing vocals give it a Yardbirds-esque retro feel.  But while Grace Bond demands “So kiss me, just kiss me” with conviction, it’s nothing compared to the full-on wailing and swooping she delivers at the climax.  ‘Perfect Stranger’ brings drama in different ways, with tense, choppy guitar chords and pattering drums for the verses, before slowing into some triumphal guitar chords as the prompt for Grace to illuminate the chorus.  Quirkier percussion livens up the third verse, and the chorus becomes even more magisterial as Bowers’ drums cut loose and Grace soars over the top with her tale of passionate connection.  ‘The Secret’ is as uptempo as they get, rattling along on the verses before hitting the brakes for the strident chorus, with squealing interjections of violin – or is it slide mandolin? – while a cool bridge shifts the focus and sets the scene for some more eerie slide slitherings, of a kind that also enlivens the familiar quiet verse/blazing chorus dynamics of ‘Trail To Avalon’.
A couple of tracks are less interesting though.  ‘Aces Are High’ itself feels a bit thin, more a sketch than a fully realised song, with its fuzzy guitar doodling over a funereal beat, and inconsequential verses.  The closing ‘5 Minutes To Midnight’ ushers in some stop-start grimy guitar over a whumping Glitter Band-like rhythm, but the verses aren’t as attention-grabbing as the crash-bang-wallop chorus, with its cri de coeur of “I’m alive!  And I’m ready!”.
By the by, I could do with Grace Bond’s vocals being higher in the mix at times.  If When Rivers Meet have a secret weapon, her voice is it, and it needs to cut through bright and clear.
Writing about When Rivers Meet’s second album Saving Grace, I reckoned their distinctive sound had given them an edge so far, but they’d need to add more strings to their bow in order to keep their material fresh.  Both those things remain true.  Adding some new colours to their palette is going to be important in the future.  But for now they can just enjoy the ride.
Aces Are High is out now, and can be ordered here.

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