ALBUM REVIEW by Matt Bell (The Sun)
22 April 2016
“If you’ve spent the winter wondering whether Jon Snow will return (alive) in Game of Thrones, one glance at the cover of Sam Winston’s debut album, The Fire & The Icicle, may lift your spirits. A man with long black hair and a hooded cloak strides towards a mountain, carrying a burning lantern. OK, he’s not a ranger of the Night’s Watch, but where he leads, you’ll want to follow. The image is the darkest thing about Winston’s record; ahead is all a heart-warming, folk-pop march into the light. Winston is an instinctive melodist and soulful to the tips of his toes. None of these 10 songs outstays its welcome, but every one shifts subtly and rewardingly between or within genres, buoyed by an undeniably pure-pop sensibility. Even at its most melancholy, Winston’s voice has the sunny elan of a Bruno Mars (one of his influences), and even a can’t-quite-put-your-finger-on-it Caribbean lilt, like Finley Quaye’s cousin, twice removed. Elsewhere, there’s a hint of the bluesy rasp of Paolo Nutini, another of his musical heroes, but Winston is also consistently smooth and charismatic – a romantic with his ear attuned to the finest R&B, past and present.
“No November Like It” crackles with hand-claps and sparks with slide guitar, as if Django were doing a campfire jig. “You were flammable, hostile, altogether volatile,” goes the lyric. This song is entirely hummable. That pop sweetness, almost the best kind of boyband croon, is caught on “Reach You” and the swoonsome chorus of “Who Decides?” while there’s a jazzier swing to “Stand & Fight”, after its starker, electric guitar-picked opening. “Little White Lights” is a gorgeous, swaying lament for lost love that proves Winston is the kind of artist to restore your faith in human nature. Its key couplet could be his credo: “I’ll be optimistic/In this world so cold and twisted.” Some of his most intriguing music can be found on “Cherry Sweet” and “Defenceless (Your Move)”. The former mixes honky-tonk brass and a ukulele in a sort of quirky showtune: think early Noah & the Whale do Bacharach, in New Orleans, with a catchy, come-rain-or-shine insouciance. The latter could be the album’s standout: using dulcitone, autoharp and three different organs, Winston seems to be piloting “Ashes to Ashes”-inspired synth-pop through a 19th-century wormhole in the company of Terence Trent D’Arby. “Silhouette” reveals more of those R&B smarts, as a line as startlingly contemporary as “It’s better than HD, and 3D and every TV screen” suddenly begins the chorus of a stately, Tea for the Tillerman-recalling, baroque-pop odyssey namechecking “a wooden spoon”, “blackberry jam at summer noon” and “sepia rainbows”.
The last song, “These Golden Hearts”, revels in its layered harmonies and anthemic chorus, like “Yellow”-era Coldplay, still gazing at the stars. Military drums beat a retreat, as Winston’s vocal glides between R&B falsetto and Mumfords-eque bluster in the space of the middle-eight. Earlier, “The Bad Wolf” (of “Big” fame) makes an appearance, complete with a delightfully doo-wop-ish introduction. Yet for all that he sings “The glass is half-empty/There’s no positivity now”, Winston only deals in happy endings. In this fairy tale of an album, he can’t help but play Prince Charming.”More from Matt Bell