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Ahab: a recommendation

Regular readers may recall me saying good things about the London-based alt-country outfit Ahab. I saw them play at Shoreham's Ropetackle Centre on Wednesday and picked up a copy of their new album, Beautiful Hell. They're a lot of fun live and the CD is pretty impressive too. Do take the opportunity to see and hear them if you can.

I first came across them up in Stornoway at the Hebridean Celtic Festival in 2011, when I described them as…

a sort of anglo-Americana band from Dalston, rather reminiscent (for listeners of a certain age) of Brinsley Schwarz, but with rather better vocals - four singers in the frontline, with strong harmonies. So maybe the comparison should be Fleet Foxes con cojones - or, if that's unfair, with much more onstage energy and attack. 

The band had initially been formed by singer-songwriter-guitarists Dave Burn and Callum Anderson, who had then been joined by Luke Price and Seebs Llewellyn, expanding the harmonies and adding mandolin and bass to a democratic, instrument-swapping front line. By mid-2011 they had a couple of EPs out with that line-up plus different drummers, No King and KMVT. Over the last couple of years I've seen them play in Brighton twice and they've released two more CDs: Wit's End, which essentially collected the earlier EPs, and the self-explanatory Live In London.

The live album was convincing and showed how they'd built an attractive repertoire, as well as a good line in off-the-wall, often very funny, stage chat. They were used to each others' playing and managed to maintain an endearing combination of modesty and musical swagger.

That history means that Beautiful Hell is in some ways their first proper album. But it also has the usual challenges of what is normally seen as a band's 'difficult' second release: coming up all at once with a strong new set of songs that will be seen to go beyond the tried, tested and familiar ones which were written over a period of years and have become the backbone of a well-honed live set.

Put like that, it is a bit tricky, isn't it? And Ahab have had the additional challenge of losing founder member Callum in the summer. He's recently become a father and, while he has co-writing credits for all the songs on the new album, he doesn't play on it and is missing from the current tour. It's not clear whether he will return at some point.

Anyway, they seem to be handling things very successfully.

Seebs has moved seamlessly to cover the trademark 12-string lead lines which had previously often been played by Callum, while Oscar Lisshagen takes over the bass on all but one song, where he adds keyboards. There still is some instument swapping between songs, but it feels more of a conventional set-up somehow, with more of a gap between frontline and rhythm section than there was. And, while the three-part harmonies remain a strong and distinctive selling point, it's a bit of a shame to have lost the possibility of four distinctive vocalists singing together.

Enough carping. They were in fine and varied voice on Wednesday, with a real sense of energy and attack throughout the show. A somewhat staid Shoreham audience was quieter than they would have liked - a bit of repartee and interchange clearly helps to spur them on. And, that said, the crowd's reaction was very positive and there was an encouraging rush to the merch table at the end, which I was happy to join. 

I'm enjoying the copy of the album I bought. There's a good range of songs and sounds on that, too, with some nice harmonica in places, as well as keyboards. I'm not convinced by the whistling on 'Hey There Sunshine', but I'm not sure I ever have been convinced by whistling - and I'm not going to start carping again...

Listen and enjoy.

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