With the soothing, 3/4 beat of a folk ballad and the tenderness of a singer/songwriter confessional, “Oil & Lacquer” is the work of an eight-piece Scottish ensemble that plays with unusual warmth and restraint. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with the crowded, kitchen-sink indie pop that has flooded the market in the 21st century, but there is always something to be said for restraint, especially in our generally unrestrained times. I was surprised after listening to this a number of times to see that there were in fact eight people in the band. They create the sonic space of a smaller crew, and I mean that as a compliment. They are willing, for one thing, to let one another play in relative isolation—listen, for example, to the second verse, starting at 0:48, in which singer Ben Harrison is accompanied with not much more than accordion and percussion. And okay there’s a keyboard back there if you listen carefully. The uncluttered background allows the soprano sax to add beautifully to the color of the piece when it steps closer to the front of the mix in the third verse, around 1:23.
What the song lacks in sheer busy noise it makes up for in developing intensity. Part of this is accomplished via song structure, which isn’t the standard verse-chorus-verse but more like verse-verse-verse-chorus-chorus. The chorus half of the song is kicked off when most of the players put their instruments down and start singing, around 2:09. It’s a fine moment, and shifts the song into a deeper place; while the chorus melody is something of a variation of the verse melody, the music simplifies as the lyrics sharpen—the narrator goes from singing about life to singing about Life, and somewhere along the way the song gets me right in the gut.
Front man Ben Harrison was born and raised on the Isle of Islay in Scotland, in (on?) the Inner Hebrides (home not only of good music but some mighty fine Scotch); he and the band are now based in Glasgow. “Oil & Lacquer” was the ensemble’s first single, released this past spring in the UK. A new single will be out in December on the new Scottish label Eli and Oz. No word yet on a full-length release.