All Things Real
ress releases are like Wikipedia: all information is unverified and obviously biased if the topic is at all interesting, and the lesser-known the topic, the freer the indulgence in wishful thinking. But like Wikipedia, press releases can be helpful as long as you take them with some salt; more than anything else they're useful for telling not what a musician actually sounds like but what they want to be.
Edinburgh singer/songwriter Steve Adey's first album came to my door accompanied by a press release that drops some interesting names: Talk Talk, the Blue Nile, Low. The latter is pretty much only there because nothing on All Things Real goes faster than a canter; as good as Adey's voice is, he bears no resemblance to either singer in Low, let alone what happens when they work together. The other two references are similarly tenuous—Adey is significantly smaller in scale than the former and less meticulous than the latter—but you get a sense for the sort of thing he’s reaching at.
For such sweeping, brooding music, All Things Real is remarkably compact. The record barely makes it past the forty-minute mark, and if you omit the three short mood pieces scattered throughout (of which only the gently arpeggioed “Tonight” has vocals) and the two covers you’re left with just five tracks. Because his music doesn’t boast a lot of sonic or lyrical diversity, a shorter record with a few strong compositions works better than an hour of overspill.
After the briefly haunting “Death to All Things Real” the album kicks off with a version of Will Oldham’s “I See a Darkness” that might boast more raw ache than the original. As on much of the album, Adey’s voice and harmonium/piano playing make up the majority of the sound, augmented by slight drums, funereally paced guitar, and occasional backing vocals by Helena MacGilp and Naomi Van Noordennen (the former of which duets with Adey to great effect on “The Lost Boat Song”). The pace is significantly altered—even Johnny Cash took the song at a lighter, faster clip, and where Cash sounded as if he was determined to fight the dark, Adey sounds like a man at the end of his rope, possibly while standing on a chair.
By the end of his eight-minute cover of Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm,” the whole band is playing, but it feels just as desolate as the opening seconds; never has Dylan’s “creature void of form” sounded so wracked, so stricken. Adey takes advantage of the space to use his voice more powerfully than on the rest of All Things Real. He never quite bellows, but he possesses force. His voice is one of the best things about the album: clear and direct but with a slight rasp and constant undercurrent of woe that fits the gloomy sound to a T.
The originals are nearly as good, if not quite as immediately memorable. Guitarist Douglas MacDonald contributes the lovely and relatively cheery “Evening of the Day,” but the strongest part of All Things Real is the closing duo of “The Last Remark” and “Mississipi.” Adey originally recorded the album with the full orchestral/choral treatment but scrapped those recordings (with the exception of single “Find the Way,” recorded in a church on an old grand piano) in favor of the near-solo approach that gives these tracks so much of their lonely force.
“The Last Remark” piles on the reverb, especially on Adey’s voice, to pleasing if slightly predictable effect; when he echoes away into nothingness while wailing “we can barely speak,” MacDonald’s guitar crashes around him like surf. “Mississippi” is even more withdrawn, the perfect track to end things. No drums, no guitars, just that tentative piano and some humming ambience. According to Adey, it was originally a “big song with many verses” until he re-wrote it after seeing a movie about the drowning of Jeff Buckley. Much as with the new, orchestra-less versions of these songs, it’s hard to imagine “Mississippi” existing any other way, which is the best sign possible that Adey made the right choice.
Now that he’s made the right choices once, though, the real test awaits. After such a focused, cohesive record, one with a consistent, mournfully beautiful emotional tone it’s clear Adey has a lot of promise, and maybe even enough that someday, Blue Nile and Talk Talk will be peers and not aspirations. If he can build on this without falling into a rut—admittedly tricky when dealing with this kind of limited palette—you can expect great things from him.