Perhaps because the musical landscape shifts so relentlessly, it feels like an awfully long time since John Peel died. In a post-Peel era, The Arctic Monkeys have been twice asked to headline the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury; Dizzee Rascal has navigated a path from the underground to his current position to a place beyond stardom: the Sun-sponsored Raging Bull of grime. Elbow’s status as national treasures has become so unassailable that their singer can be found on CBeebies ushering the nation’s pre-schoolers to dreamland. Oh, and hapless indie triers Snow Patrol didn’t split up in a blaze of apathy. They pack arenas with their ubiquitous Relate-rock anthems.
In pop’s sheltered margins, however, the pace is less frantic. Perhaps because Oly Ralfe’s subdued cinematic narratives have yet to catch flame, commercially speaking, they still feel like a newish thing. A thing that might yet happen in the wider world. And because of that newishness, it’s all the more surprising to pore over a few old reviews and note that their early days overlap with the final months of Peel, who declared himself a fan of the group. For Peel, Ralfe Band’s USP was the fact that “it’s difficult to tell who they’ve been listening to.” Nine years on, Oly Ralfe’s inspirations remain elusive. We know he’s a Bob Dylan fan, less because of his music and more because – in his other life as a cinematographer he worked on Dylan-related documentary The Ballad Of AJ Weberman. A more useful comparison might be the timorous back-porch lullabies that populated Lambchop’s first two albums. As with Kurt Wagner, Oly Ralfe was too good a melodicist to be relegated to mere background noise.
But even if you already knew that about about his songs, it feels like, from the very outset, something much greater is at play on the band’s fourth album Son Be Wise. Possibly a punning reference to his postcode (he lives in Oxford), opening track Ox is a standard fashioned from the unlikeliest of premises: man falls in love; man declares love; man wills himself to turn into livestock to carry his love to her destination. Ralfe’s hush-voiced delivery here recalls that of James Yorkston. Elsewhere, ghosts of Ralfe Band’s defunct early contemporaries Ella Guru abound in a string of arrangements whose apparent raison d’etre is not waking up the sleeping baby six feet away. Oly Ralfe’s approach to recording is almost akin to that of a hustler. Always sounding slightly unrehearsed is a good way to catch even the most resistant listener off-guard, thus compounding the impact of a spectral dancehall lament like the Piney Gir-assisted Dead Souls. Try dropping the needle randomly on either side of Son Be Wise and you’ll comfortably be able to hold your breath before a knee-trembling major-to-minor chord change forces an involuntary sigh.
On this thorough index of little epiphanies, the cantering afterlife reminiscences of Barricades and the dewy oriental inflections of Oh My Father warrant special attention. For all of that, it’s the sublime synergy of violins and piano on Cold Chicago Morning that most amply repays admission into Oly Ralfe’s cobwebbed carousel of 4am fever-dreams. Sung from the perspective of the sole survivor of some terrible unspecified disaster, it’s an apt metaphor for anyone attempting to get by in 2013 out of making beautiful music. Thus far, we haven’t done much to deserve such a labour of love from Oly Ralfe. And he certainly hasn’t done anything to deserve our continuing indifference. So isn’t it about time we all got together?
[You can buy Son Be Wise from here: http://highlinerecords.greedbag.com ]