After releasing their debut EP in the later quarter of 2014, British folk duo The Shires are already back with their debut album Brave. With their focus on bringing a British sensibility to the American style of folk, it was intriguing to see how it worked over the course of an entire album.
The truth is that it’s a bit of a mixed bag. The production of the album is extremely polished, to the point that it sounds a little too perfect for such an album. There’s a good mix of songs that are closer to pop or country alternatively, and the twangy guitar on Nashville Grey Skies and the banjo on Friday Night convey the American aspect easily without sounding out of place on the album. For better or worse, it’s hard to find a technical or performance fault throughout the album.
The main issue comes with the vocalists. Ben Earle’s vocals are smooth and soulful, adding a nice amount of depth to the songs, and his performance is as faultless as the production, but the same cannot be said about his female counterpart Crissie Rhodes. While she has a decent voice, it tends to be the lone factor throwing multiple songs slightly off-kilter, either because she’s attempting to out-sing Ben by hitting notes fairly higher than the songs would usually call for, or when she’s attempting to use her higher register more than necessary. This is especially noticeable when they sing an entire song together, such as Nashville Grey Skies, and they tend to be the weak points of the album.
On the other hand, good use of harmonies and vocal performances from Crissie start popping up in the later half of the album. Friday Night shows improvement early on in the album, when she only comes in during the chorus and on points of the verse that require real emphasis, rather than singing the entire song with Ben. The final three songs of the album also show that she really does have a good voice when used properly. Black And White features a particularly vulnerable performance from Crissie, and her high notes are used to good effect rather than being thrown out randomly throughout the song, allowing for a true build-up in intensity before the band fills it out for the last chorus.
It’s unfortunate that there aren’t more moments like the final three songs on Brave. The earlier half of the album is almost at odds with itself, featuring over-produced country pop songs marred by questionable vocal performances. There’s a distinct lack of soul in these songs, though those sung by Ben or that feature Crissie’s better moments are enjoyable. If they had slowed things down and stripped back the production more often, the pop moments would have had much more punch to them. If Brave had as much soul as Ben’s voice does, it would have been a real accomplishment.