Hold Fast The Fire is the second album in as many years from the pen of Brighton songwriter Kate Gerrard, and her group The Delta Bell, who’ve found a new home with the excellently named local label Random Acts Of Vinyl. There’s been a definite development from the debut, with this feeling more like a considered album than just a simple collection of songs. This must have been aided by the way it was created, recorded mostly live in two days at Church Road Studio, after a group retreat to rehearse and refine the tracks. In these days where there's an increasing focus on electronic production everywhere you turn, and the endless possibilities that brings, it's refreshing to hear a slightly old fashioned record like this. That classic sound of a group of musicians playing well in a room together. As a result, this also sounds more like a band record, with less focus on the acoustic guitar, which I imagine is the starting point for a lot of the compositions. There’s a focus to all the instrumentation, with everyone doing their utmost to serve the songs in a measured way.
Their style is often described as English Americana, which seems a little oxymoronic when taken at face value. While the roots of Gerrard's songwriting are clearly anchored in the great American songbook, it's British artists that I find myself picking up upon more often than not. Opening track 'Berlin' seems to have a germ of Joy Division's last single, 'Atmosphere', to my ears. It certainly brings a similar mood and feel to the verses, although that familiar country twang is evident in the turnaround on the chorus. ‘Lonesome Song’ follows as a more conventional slice of countrified melancholy pop. It’s luscious, though, with gorgeous strings to match the luscious harmony from Gerrard and backing vocalist Beth Chesser. ‘Little Girl Lost’ shifts gears again, with a bit more momentum, and an almost 60s sound that you could imagine sliding into a Tarantino film, particularly in those conversational guitar licks from Andrew Blake.
I keep finding myself thinking of 80s new wave pop writers, like The Pretenders or Elvis Costello, which may just be that Gerrard has found common influence with something I’m a big fan of. ‘Catacombs’, which closes the first side, is definitely one of my favourites on the album and has a lilting verse melody that really enters similar territory. I could totally imagine Costello singing it with a touch too much vibrato in his voice! While The Delta Bell consistently conjure up familiar sounds on this record, they do so in a way that’s truly their own, ‘Catacombs’ being a great example. It’s a lovely arrangement, full of understated guitar hooks, which combine with keyboard arpeggios in a beautiful middle section which transports you to another place. There’s even a harmonica solo – which works! I’ve never been a big fan of harmonica in the past, but you can’t deny it sounds sympathetic in this setting. In fact everything seems to sit comfortably in the right place, in spite of the sinister lyrical undertones of Sicilian myths.
Side two opens with the rollicking ‘Modern City’, and follows a familiar format of switching back and forth between the upbeat tracks and the ballads. I have to say it is the ballads that tend to grab me the most, but perhaps that’s just my taste. ‘Golden’, for example, has some excellent chord choices, bringing in mystery-inducing suspensions that give this track an air of grandiosity with complex emotions. There are moments here where the band start to sound like OK Computer-era Radiohead, which is no bad thing for this reviewer and also not so surprising when you start to unpack that band’s influences and realise how much of an impact country-rock giant Neil Young has had on their work. Why not also have a bit of cross-pollination? As The Delta Bell describe themselves as a post-country group, it’s worth noting they’ve taken influence from classic country and inter-bred that with such a wide breadth of sounds it’s easy to get lost if you start listening out for them, so it’s probably more sensible to just enjoy the ride.
The album closes with ‘These Days’, a beautifully melancholic song that sticks with a gently plucked electric guitar and Gerrard’s evocative voice throughout. I’m always a fan of an album ending with a deep, contemplative moment and this is just that: a song which creates its own self-contained world, making so much from so little. It’s a triumph and the icing on the cake for a well-considered collection of songs from a great local group. If sophisticated sadness is your thing then this is the record for you!