Recording information: Bank Cottage Studio, Great Wolford; Great Wolford Church; Moles Studio, Bath.
Bearing the Shetland nickname for the Great Skua, an impressive but fearsome sea bird of northern climes, Stornoway's third LP, Bonxie, gets to the heart of the Oxford band's passion for wildlife, literature, and clever pop songcraft. Stornoway, who until now have produced and engineered all of their previous recordings, stepped out of their comfort zone to enlist veteran producer Gil Norton (Pixies, Foo Fighters), who helped them make what is possibly their most personal, engaging, and best album to date. The four bandmembers have already built a sturdy reputation as talented recordists and inventive arrangers, and what Norton brings the table is a subtle but decidedly more robust production value that gives some added weight to the tracks, like on the excellent opening "Between the Saltmarsh and the Sea" and the lofty "Heart of the Great Alone." Bubbling synths and tasteful electronic elements appear alongside foghorns, waves, streetscapes, and the calls of nearly 20 different species of birds, creating a sort of eco-indie field guide to frame bandleader Brian Briggs' heartfelt folk-pop songs. There are plenty of standouts here, like the acoustic waltz "Josephine" with its four-part harmonies, the horn-laden Brill Building pop of "Love Song of the Beta Male," and the buoyant lead single "Get Low," which has all the hallmarks of an essential Stornoway track but with some added pop muscle. The tone is ultimately warm and uplifting with the kind of wistful shadows that occasionally pass over the heart, giving the album a kind of humanity that is made even more attractive by Norton's studio polish. More accessible yet no less honest than their first two records, Bonxie is an expansion of Stornoway's best attributes. ~ Timothy Monger