Herriot Row – Lesser Stars – Southbound

From the first few notes from the debut album of Aucklander Simon Comber (aka Herriot Row) you are instantly transported back to James Taylor’s 1970s.  These are songs of place and time, polished carefully like precious, fragile gemstones.  They are soft and sensual in their own way, with just a hint of the Kiwi dry sarcasm buried in the layers.  But moreover, they are unrushed and take their time to get there – where ever that may be.

From the delicate instrumental Farewell Spit to the heart-breaking, yearning song of travel memories Till The Older Brother Says Goodbye.  The latter feels like Comber is trying to reconcile some kind of parting of with his real or imagined sibling, under circumstances that are perhaps not entirely amicable.  Hoever, the animosity cannot remain, the olive branch is proffered (“until the clock in my chest begins to tick a little lighter’).

Love and loss, easy themes to write about, hard to do well, run clear and crisply through this 11-song collection of principally acoustic guitar based numbers, subtly embellished by a few friends – piano (Rob Shelton), (Andrew Macguire) percussion and vibraphone and John Vanderslice (Moog and techy stuff).   The best example of loss comes with the haunting tune about poet RAK Mason’s ghost out on Queen’s warf in the damp fog, walking like the song with queasy unease (The Beggar).

Opener Learning To Talk has a wonderful and compelling hook that insists you listen closely.  Sadly, Comber’s voice is not quite suited to this song and I feel he could have asked a female vocalist, perhaps one with a higher voice, to tackle it with more success.  Where it all gels perfectly though, is on his wonderful ditty Beautiful and Harmless, his instantly infectious but not entirely trustworthy love song.  This is a simple song, structured around a couple of satisfying chord changes and a quirky melody.  It slightly feels like something I’ve heard elsewhere but I can’t quite place it.  Within two listens I was singing this nifty little earworm all afternoon.  Watch out for this one fronting TV advert or TV promo very soon.

The song known as The Usual Business starts with the slightest hints of a Graeme Downes composition.  It’s a retarded observational piece about the chaos of a big city, moving in slo-mo as a busker moves in cinematic fashion through the streets to his position.  “It’s the usual business and I headed into town, to sign for my cigarettes with a painted frown.”  I like this one the best for its ironic honesty.

Lesser Stars was recorded in San Franscico with producer Vanderslice (Mountain Goats, Spoon) at the helm.  Comber’s moniker may not leap out at you, unless you’ve been to see the Chills national tour or the Verlaines Australian shows, where he did a bit of support work recently.  His US recordings came off the back of a tour with American indie icon Barbara Manning.  Until recently it was a one-man affair but when he heads out in support of this album it’s be as a proper band with Stu Harwood (Anthony Tonnon Band) on drums and Dave Flyger (Paquin) on bass.  It’ll be interesting to see how this all translates to a live stage and weather he can maintain the delicious intimacy of the album and all the charm it conveys on a stage.

Tim Gruar