Whether by good fortune or not, the music of Bolton-based five-piece Cherry Ghost has the advantage, in sound-alike terms, of falling somewhere between fellow Lancashire band Elbow and current alt-rock kings The National, two groups very much in vogue these days. Following on from their acclaimed 2007 debut Thirst For Romance, Beneath This Burning Shoreline has been a long time coming; writing began in 2008 in Berlin and Rome, while the recording process spanned almost all of last year in a converted barn in Cheshire owned by pals Doves. So has the wait been worth it and can Cherry Ghost offer up something unique enough to maintain their foothold in today's alternative establishment?
In-keeping with their sound-alikes, Cherry Ghost specialise in slow burners, tracks that build gradually in texture and intensity over several minutes, a case in point being album opener 'We Sleep On Stones'. As the initially irritating country-heavy bass-line gets under way, it's easy to fear the worst. Lead singer-songwriter Simon Aldred's vocal line too holds a grating simplicity and signs begin to point towards a wearing 52 minutes. Yet the band manage to turn this around in the course of the song, somehow transforming these potentially inane musical features into a searing track, beautiful but unsettling, particularly in lyrical tone: 'I made my peace with Jesus long ago/If he sees what I see then he will forgive me'.
While many fall short when attempting the slow burner technique, struggling to sustain basic musical ideas for extended periods of time, it is very clearly a concept that Cherry Ghost excel with, expertly deploying it throughout the album. It works best in the hard-hitting 'A Month Of Mornings' and lead-single 'Kissing Strangers', the latter described by Aldred as one of the best songs he's ever written. It is indeed one of the finer moments on this LP which makes it even more of a shame that it is also the point at which the band sound most like their brothers from Bury; even Aldred's voice is a dead-ringer for Guy Garvey.
It might be argued that such a comparison should never, in itself, be regarded as a shame; there must surely be hundreds of bands who would consider it an honour just to be found in the same sentence as Elbow. In fact, the 'shame' here is that Cherry Ghost have so much to offer in their own right, for there is a great deal of originality to be found on Beneath This Burning Shoreline. Their knack for building poignant songs from seemingly trivial musical material never fails to surprise, whether it be the combination of playful Hammond organ and ultra-cheesy chord changes that form 'Only A Mother Could' or the skiffle-smelling bass-line that underpins 'The Night They Buried Sadie'. The influences found on the record are also far more diverse than might be expected, with the funereal tragedy of the latter song strongly echoing the film music of Ennio Morricone. A strong post-rock element can also be traced throughout the album, primarily in regards to its linear musical construction; it's a stylistic trait most clearly displayed in the two instrumental interludes 'Conquered', the use of strings here particularly reminiscent of Sigur Rós and Johann Johannsson.
However, Beneath This Burning Shoreline's strongest facet is, without a doubt, its production. Working once more with Dan Austin, the band have played to their strengths, manipulating their core band sound just enough to add atmosphere without distracting attention from the innate beauty of the music. But it's the finishing coats of instrumental gloss on each song that leave a subtle but lasting impact; brass and string arrangements are uniformly excellent while more imaginative touches such as the haunting repeated honky-tonk piano patterns in 'Barberini Square' and the wonderful sustained guitar effects in 'A Month Of Mornings' add depth and colour. Ultimately though, all this is merely in service of Aldred's stellar songwriting abilities and endearing vocals. Lyrically he's eloquent and poetic without digression and even when entering the realm of romance in 'Black Fang', he does so with just a hint of self-deprecation: 'Be my one hit wonder'.
Whether all this is enough to enable Cherry Ghost to establish themselves in their own right remains to be seen. The fact that one has to prise oneself away from easy comparisons with bigger acts in the alternative scene is indicative that they may still have some way to go if they are to receive the plaudits they deserve. However, this doesn't detract from the fact that Beneath This Burning Shoreline is an album of a consistently high standard, one that any band should be proud to have in their catalogue. The elements of originality on display here are telltale signs of a truly great band and exploiting them further will only yield great things. This said, I don't think it is advice that the members of Cherry Ghost need to hear; if they are as in control of their artistic destiny as they sound, then it won't be long before Messrs. Garvey and Berninger have a new set of peers.