Home » THE HANGING STARS
Age restriction 14+
On A Golden Shore arrives with The Hanging Stars reflecting on a year of triumphs. Encompassing an Americana Music Association Bob Harris - sanctioned award and a Nashville sell-out in Third Man’s Blue Room with Jack White approvingly looking on, they’ve consolidated their position as a leading force – and a spur and example to the likes of Bobby Lee and Hollow Hand - in the increasingly diverse, ever more fascinating UK Cosmic Americana cohort. Consequently, and perhaps ironically, the confidence this recognition, and more crucially the concomitant self-recognition, engendered has allowed them to pay less attention to any preconceptions of what they are ‘supposed to be’. On A Golden Shore - their fifth album, and their second for the pioneering Loose Music, following 2022’s Hollow Heart - finds them definitively The Hanging Stars and no one else.
Thus this new record calls to mind albums like Goats Head Soup and The Go-Betweens Bright Yellow, Bright Orange; collections of disparate songs whose linkage is the organism that made them. Certainly they begin to view themselves that way; frontman Richard Olson speaks approvingly of The Hanging Stars becoming “an entity on their own, rolling forward”. The whole process of On A Golden Shore was markedly different to that of Hollow Heart. While that had the unexpected space to be prepped, worked out, and arranged, all prior to recording, this record was made in the gaps between all the other demands placed on a gigging band.
There were continuities: they mainly recorded again at Edwyn Collins’ Clashnarrow Studios at Helmsdale, high up on the Scottish north-east coast. As before Sean Read produced, and overdubbing and mixing were carried out at his Famous Times studio in East London. But four of the five band members - singer and guitarist Richard Olson, drummer Paulie Cobra, Patrick Ralla guitars and keyboards, along with new bassist Paul Milne – would travel with almost no instruments, and a set of songs in varying degrees of incompleteness. On arrival they had few parts and few touchstones beyond the aspiration to make something akin to a baggy, Balearic country album. These songs had come in a burst, tumbling out closely together, mainly from Richard; they started to form almost on a sudden but insistently demanding to become a record.
Arriving in Clashnarrow in the immediate aftermath of sharing the Americana awards show stage with The Waterboys and Robert Plant, and off the back of touring, they were warmed up and ready. Edwyn gave them the run of the studios and his extensive instrument and equipment collection, and over eight days they laid down the album’s whole backbone; bass, drums, guitar, and most of the vocals. It all fell into place on the spot with everything in the main recorded live, even the solos done as a piece. Much of it is first take because whenever they went back to try and do it better, it never worked as well. Pedal-steel player Joe Harvey-Whyte then created and added his parts at his London Karma Studios bringing ‘shimmery psychedelic goodness’. Smartly sequenced it proceeds in clusters of songs related by themes that belatedly reveal themselves. Lyrically it’s a very sad record; whether there’s any truth to these stories of death and heartbreak is neither here nor there, though they do permit an apposite coinage for the whole as Cosmic Heartbreak Boogie.
Or maybe see it as Hollow Heart’s ‘darker little brother’. Certainly opener ‘Let Me Dream Of You’, for Olson, ”sets the tone of the record quite well in terms of a heartbreaky bravado”. The song evokes the spirit of Villa Nellcôte, and the nigh-on imperceptible drag as it sits a mite behind the backbeat hints to an Exile on mandrax. Sashaying in a free and easy choogle, highlighting a looser, groovier side of the band the lyric flags a ‘season of our tears’ while Ralla’s guitar solo is haunted by the shade of Tom Verlaine: “It was recorded in the same week he died and he was on my mind the whole way through. If you listen to that solo and a few of the other tracks - ‘I Need A Good Day’ - the not-so-harmonic playing definitely fed into it. He was everywhere and I listened to him more intensively that week before, and it fed in both subconsciously and consciously.”
If ‘Let Me Dream Of You’ is a song of the night then ‘Sweet Light’ appears to throw the curtains open. Its sunny glam sound, and sense of blissful motion, belie its undercurrent of regret, and yet the bittersweet melancholy breakdown, final guitar and choruses argue otherwise. This Ralla composition initially conceived as an 80s Lou Reed song voiced by Robert Forster was literally written a week before recording, Olson completed the lyrics, and it turned into a Tom Petty-like country song. Climaxing this opening triptych is the baggy-plus-Jerry ‘Happiness Is A Bird’ carrying the distinct scent of warm ocean breeze as notes fall over each other in rich tones of transience, Paulie and Paul harmonise bright, Balearic, and brief, and then the Garcia-like solo plays out like the Dead and is similarly gone too soon.
A transience emphasised in the complementary ‘Disbelieving’ and ‘Washing Line’; the former a pedal-steel lament with terminally gob-smacked vocal and a fistful of Easter Eggs, its sad sequel bringing appositely dry sound, with little reverb and dead-sounding drums. Then a pivot to fantasia in the hauntingly exotic ’Golden Shore’; the pan pipes of Circulus’ Will Summers, Cobra’s funky bongos, and the inspired lyrical twist of “Make me a palace on your floor” all contribute to its other-worldliness. Harvey-Whyte provides rare guitar and there’s a suggestion of Khruangbin’s desert-psych; add synthesizer layering, keys, and the magic carpet has ignition. ‘Silver Rings’ begins as 70s progressive funk, something like War, proceeding infectiously with metronomic percussion, dancing piano, and bright harmonies.
The closing quartet presents as a resume, or restatement of the band’s mission. ‘I Need A Good Day’; an equivalent to Hollow Heart’s ‘I Don’t Want To Feel Bad Anymore’; is a blast of fresh, familiar air redolent of bright jangly Creation bands of yore. ‘No Way Spell’ resurrects a rolling banjo, with mandolin and acoustic guitar. ‘Raindrops In A Hurricane’ starts folksy, with Jansch-like acoustic, then takes on more of a Kinks-like barroom vibe. The celestial sounds of ‘Heart In A Box’ recall the vistas of ‘A New Kind Of Sky’; its opulent opening with Read’s horns cascading as though a trumpet voluntary, but as the song grows it’s equally contained inside itself; the ‘Sistine dome’ proves less extent than constraint, the internal rhymes bounce back on each other, and the call and response of “without you” devastates.
Fashioned instinctively On A Golden Shore is ultimately an album of sensation as much as thought, filled with fleeting moments of blissful excess, and stumbling, rushing flutters of sound; an evanescent psychedelia, with divine choruses, shards of strings, at moments embracing a muffled, hazy, stoned wobble. The band members approach from such diverse angles; Joe makes ambient and spacious sounds, Pat loves jangly guitars, Rich is a folkie, Paul Milne an old psychedelic mod, while Paulie is into Love and rhythmic stuff. Yet together they’ve conjured the heady creative democracy of The Hanging Stars; the word on which comes from Patrick: “Anyone can say ‘try this’! If it works we’ll keep it. This record came so quickly, so fast, it feels like it fell together, and we just mixed it. It’s a great way of doing things but I haven’t really had time to live with it; there’s still a lot to dig into and to reveal itself; with some of the songs I just go ‘Wow! What did we do there?’”