Album of the Week, March 15: Fair Warning by the Rails

RailsWarningBy the time they joined forces, James Walbourne and Kami Thompson each had impressive musical resumes. London-born Walbourne is a smart, eclectic guitarist and singer. He parlayed a fondness for American roots rock and British folk into a sterling session career — working with the likes of the Pogues and the Pretenders — and stints as a member of the Pernice Brothers and Son Volt. Thompson is the daughter of British folk-rock legends Richard and Linda Thompson. She hovered around the edges of the music industry for years, contributing to albums by her mother and her brother, Teddy Thompson, before easing into her own career. She also worked with a diverse group of alt-folk types — including Bonnie “Prince” Billy — eventually running into Walbourne. Their shared love of folk and smart pop got them working together, initially as Dead Flamingoes. By the time they rechristened the duo the Rails, they were also married.

Title Fair Warning
Act The Rails
Label Island Release Date May 5, 2014
Producer Edwyn Collins, Sebastian Lewsley and the Rails
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
  1. Bonnie Portmore
  2. Breakneck Speed
  3. Jealous Sailor
  4. Younger
  5. William Taylor
  6. Panic Attack Blues
  7. Send Her to Holloway
  8. Grace of God
  9. Fair Warning
  10. Borstal
  11. Habit

As they prepared to enter the studio, they wrote a number of wonderful songs and settled on a couple of traditional tunes. They opted for singer-songwriter Edwyn Collins to produce the disc, a smart choice given his long career of clever, offbeat pop with occasional folky elements. Collins captures the spirit and energy of the Rails, giving them just the right amount of structure and cohesion to let their musical talents shine. Walbourne’s earthy vocals and powerful guitar blend seamlessly with Thompson’s rich alto and acoustic contributions. A sharp and sympathetic rhythm section — Cody Dickinson (drums) and Danny Williams (bass) — round out the regular crew. The Rails bring in an occasional guest to fill out the sound as needed, notably fellow second-generation folkie and master fiddler Eliza Carthy.

The disc opens with the lovely traditional song Bonnie Portmore, a sad ballad about fading legacies. It’s a perfect starting point, showing off the pair’s wonderful harmonies and giving a nod to the rich musical well from which they draw. Most of the tracks are Thompson/Walbourne compositions, but one other traditional tune adds flavor to the mix. Featuring another great duet vocal, they give a nice treatment to the old ballad William Taylor, a story of betrayal and disguise. It’s been recorded many times (notably in versions by June Tabor and Martin Carthy), but the Rails make it their own with crisp, modern instrumentation and a clever use of alternating voices to capture mood and character.

Given the pair’s backgrounds, it’s no surprise that many of their originals fit into strong traditional modes. The Walbourne-led Jealous Sailor is the clearest example, a clever story of romantic troubles propelled by energetic harmonies and Carthy’s great fiddle work. A handful of songs dwell on the theme of prison, another trad-folk staple. Send Her to Holloway is a most direct, with Walbourne wishing the woman who devastated him imprisoned for her actions. The clever juxtaposition of romance and the well-known women’s prison is the Rails’ writing at its best. With Borstal, Walbourne turns the tables on himself, risking life in the infamous jail for taking murderous revenge on his unfaithful lover and the man who seduced her. These direct prison references are joined by the haunting Grace of God, with Thompson singing an aching tale of metaphorical shackles and the disappointments of roads not taken.

That tension shows up in other relationship driven songs as well. The clever Younger looks at a reasonably stable relationship and the pressures of growing up and old together. Thompson takes another lead on Breakneck Speed, a stirring song of escape given impetus by Carthy’s fiddle. It’s a highlight of the album, with a melancholy pace that almost belies the title.

That despair is a fixture of the folky pop that the Rails bring us. Thompson opens the title track with a line worthy of her father’s dark meditations: “I’ll be okay soon, there’s a bottle in my hand.” A lovely, aching I-should-have-listened track, the powerful humanity of the vocals provides a catharsis for the aching narration. Walbourne’s finest moment is a much more energetic bit of desperation. Panic Attack Blues is a riveting romp, a look at coping mechanisms and the terror that comes as they begin to fail. It’s the best track on the album, with great harmonies and another driving fiddle line. Melancholy wraps up the journey as well. Walbourne and Thompson sing a lovely duet, accompanied only by their twin acoustic guitars, on Habit. It’s a fine pop song about making the best of a broken relationship and a smart closer, showing off how powerful the Rails are at their most elemental.

FURTHER LISTENING: The Rails have just this one disc — one of the finest of 2014 — to their credit. It’s won them well-deserved acclaim as a band and as an album. Before forming their musical and personal partnership, each Rail had one solo album to their credit. Walbourne released The Hill in 2010. It’s a solid showcase of his powerful guitar work and features some smart writing. Highlights include the urban decay ballad of the title track, the folk-noir Northern Heights and the touching Songbird. Thompson’s 2011 Love Lies is an amazing disc, featuring guest work from her talented family that emphasizes her own talents. The finest moments are the surprising cover of the George Harrison Beatles classic Don’t Bother Me, the grimly compelling domestic devastation of Tick Tock, and the cars-as-sex metaphor Nice Cars (also covered by her mother, Linda). The pair also appear on last year’s Family a great project curated by Teddy Thompson featuring the work of the extended family; the Rails-driven Careful is a highlight of the project.

About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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