Another splendid review for '...Phrenology', this time from Penny Black Music Magazine

Stuart Turner and the Flat Earth Society: The Art and Science of Phrenology

Reviewed By: Malcolm Carter
Label: Vacilando '68 Recordings
Format: CD                                            

The music created by Stuart Turner has, and hopefully will always be, a challenging experience. Turner is forever pushing boundaries but this album, his third backed by The Flat Earth Society, while still defying all known genres, is slightly more accessible than those that went before.
It’s still very much an acquired taste, not because Turner’s songs lack structure, although many of the songs featured on ‘The Art And Science of Phrenology’ are complex and demand the listener's total attention, but it’s still that voice that will turn as many people away as it attracts. Making Tom Waits sound like a choirboy is no mean feat and, while it’s understandable that many listeners will still find it hard to get past that gravelly gurgle that Turner uses to sing with, there’s so much more to the man’s music if he is only given the chance.

Those who were impressed by last year’s single ‘Call Me Dave’ (included on this album) will find plenty more of the same here; the jaunty banjo at odds with Turner’s growling vocals on a song that could almost be his calling-card, highlighting Turner’s intense vocal style perfectly. ‘Mindspikes’, which opens the album, is cut from the same cloth, banjo replaced by big guitar hooks and Turner almost mumbling the lyrics through the melee.

Like many others the first time I heard Turner it was something of a surprise and it did take a little time to adjust to his unique vocal style, but while it’s understandable why some will not grant Turner the time needed to get accustomed to his vocals it’s a shame if they give up on this music before it’s given a fair chance. There’s much to like here and even Turner’s singing voice, idiosyncratic as it is, has a certain charm and appeal given time.

Tracks like ‘Animalistic’ have so much going on musically and are really quite addictive so even if the listener can’t see beyond Turner’s growl initially there’s so much more to concentrate on. ‘Animalistic’ has Thomas Poston speaking the verses before Turner’s familiar roar comes in, and it’s touches like this that keep the album interesting.

‘The Gospel According to Us’ displays Turner’s blues leanings, the stripped-down backing of banjo and guitar creating a spooky atmosphere that is ideally suited to Turner’s heartfelt, intense vocals. While the fuller tracks certainly impress as Turner and the band don’t necessarily follow the expected path and are forever throwing in odd shapes and sounds, ‘The Gospel According to Us’ shows that Turner can still mesmerise with the minimum of backing and that unique voice on the more bluesy tracks like this.

‘Walking Through The Snow (To Get to You)’ is the one though; if Turner has a sensitive side then this is the closest we are likely to get to it, mumbling his way through what is a moving, pretty tune it throws up a side to Turner half-way through the album that he doesn’t show very often. Am I the first to use the word beautiful when describing one of Turner’s songs? Because if this touching, beautiful piece of music doesn’t move you then you’d better check for your pulse.

It’s not only Turner’s voice that grabs your attention though; ‘The Making of Landscape’ features vocals from Aimee Grinter and, while the song is another stomper like others on the album, Grinter’s haunting wordless background vocals add more than just texture to the song; when you hear Grinter singing in one ear and Turner in the other you’ll wish for more of the same.

‘The Mingulay Boat Song’ is the only song that Turner didn’t write, and really hammers home the Tom Waits influence. A traditional sea-shanty, it can’t fail to flash images of drunken fishermen through your mind, and starting slow before layers of sound are added it ends the album on a rousing high note.

‘The Art and Science of Phrenology’ is the most original album you’ve probably heard since…well, since the last Stuart Turner album. For all the attention that Turner’s voice is once again going to claim look beyond that and discover some really good tunes and brilliant playing from all concerned.

Just a closing note about the way the album is presented; a nice touch is the black vinyl-looking CD so respect to the Vacilando ’68 Recordings label for taking the time and trouble to do that little bit extra in making an exceptional and unique album even more attractive.                                                

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