George Thomas and the Owls - Concert For Two Bicycles

George Bass 22/05/2007

Rating: 3/5

George Thomas is something of a real-life comic book character - by day, a swarthy tree surgeon helping to turn dead wood into sawdust; by night, a mellow folk frontman flanked by his deciduous backing act The Owls. Now anyone who hears the words "woodcutter" and "singer" and immediately thinks of Michael Palin in his infamous lumberjack hat can breathe a sigh of a relief at Concert For Two Bicycles, Thomas' genteel debut for Red Deer Club that grapples with nocturnal twee and enough toothy torque to bankrupt Husqvarna. 'But I see things/A man on a galloping horse won't see', coos Mr T as the album opens, and for much of what's to come you do get the sense that he's privy to some wood-fired sixth sense brought about by songs penned in the backwoods rather than the bedroom. That said, Cruelty Blues sounds like it's been recorded live on the bandstand at a steam fair, cymbals and organs buffed up like a set of pub horse brasses, while Miniature jettisons Thomas' hushed wordplay altogether in favour of some fireside guitar a la Mogwai's Dial: Revenge. Perhaps by means of compensation, follow-up On Fife Ness does away with everything bar the lyrics, and lets Thomas spread out from centre stage to eerily fill the whole arena with his tonal whisperings. It's the acid test for his craft as a storyteller, spilling out softly like John Mauchline's interruptions on the Arab Strap debut, gently elocuted and wiped free of tape hiss. No tales of stoned stumbles down the garage for Dortitos here, mind - just lungfuls of country air which serve as a fresh rural alternative, spiced with rusted Fiestas and faded first generation Pepsi cans.

What makes Concert For Two Bicycles significantly fruitier than the lion's share of contemporary folk is the core of mischief that winds through most of its thirty-five minutes, something Thomas handles as deftly as a trio of juggling balls. On Cakes Pastries And Patisseries he brings harps and harmonicas to the front of the mix, giving an ambient bluescreen to his lip-smacking mantra of 'I do enjoy them/Only one lifetime to live'. Similarly, the banjo jollity and sandwich anecdotes of Picnic Spot Blues sound as if they're referencing The Littlest Hobo taking five for his dinnerbreak. Perhaps Thomas only gets truly cheesed off when he's toppling trees. That's not to say he can't pull off a forlorn swoon when he needs to, and In The Dirty Sunshine has all the humble photogenics of the hi-points on the Jeepster label - think Stuart Murdoch swapping his cardy for Goretex and two-stroke. The difference here, though, is anyone expecting teen reverie and gloom as grey as takeaway beef is likely to still be listening for the cry of 'timber' by the time they get brained by a Giant Redwood. George Thomas and his feathery acolytes make country music that won't give you hayfever, and Concert For Two Bicycles nudges those going through the motions of the folk revival scene gently back in the shade. It won't win any trophies for breaking the decibel barrier, but the eleven tracks on display here are cryptic enough to coerce their audience into submission, and feature scoops of earthy timelessness as evergreen as Grotbags' herb garden.