The Vagaband: wandering minstrels that are, as Gilbert and Sullivan would have had it, “a thing of shreds and patches, of ballads, songs and snatches”. An eight piece band from Norfolk fronted by the improbably named Jose McGill, these guys haul influences in from anywhere and everywhere, mash it up until you’re completely bewildered as to what you’re listening to, and build songs around hooks that they hammer home until you’re convinced that you’ve known these songs forever.
Every one of these guys has more than one instrument to their name, so a list of what gets played will give you little clue as to how they sound; it’s not really a guitar band, I’ll say that much, though guitar is Jose’s instrument of choice. With pedal steel, banjo and mandolin in there, it’s maybe a surprise that at no point do they sound like a country band (they come very close on Send in the Cavalry, but I’m pretty sure I’ve not heard a trumpet on a country song before). Rather, it’s the various woodwind and brass instruments – everything from flute to flugelhorn – that gives this band its distinctive character, veering from a sleazy cabaret sound to the carefree exuberance of a Caribbean bar. All along the way there’s a strong sense of a pop awareness underneath all that dressing up; as with Mumford and Sons before them, you feel they’ve come up with a way of sounding different whilst still having something about them that people can latch onto really quickly.
Jose McGill himself has a distinctive voice – roughened but also yearning – that has him capable of singing in almost any style. He can sound like Kelly Jones from The Stereophonics but folk, cabaret and maybe even jazz are influences to be called upon as the occasion demands. A slow and mournful take on Sixteen Tons seems to be a little confused as to where it’s going and lacks focus. However, on Youtube (though not on the album) a cover of Lionel Richie’s All Night Long demonstrates that their eccentric tastes can result in a very worthwhile cover.
Lyrically, they seem just about as eclectic and eccentric as they are musically, and more than once the imagery suggests to me that they’ve been listening to the wonderful CW Stoneking. Not many pop songs include references to Thermopylae and “seven weeks with a crew of drunken Simians” whilst soaring gloriously along to a very George Harrison-esque melody. In short, this lot are talented, distinctive and fun – a welcome arrival on the scene.
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