“In my opinion, the best Americana band not actually from North America hail from our own capital city.” So wrote Alan Morrison of The Herald when he included The Long Haul in his list of the top 50 Scottish albums of 2015, placing it at number 10. Back then we concurred (although we’d have bumped the album into the top five) but then Blabber’n’Smoke have been big fans of The Wynntown Marshals ever since we first heard them ten years ago. Yip, ten years. If The Marshals were a married couple this would be their tin anniversary but instead of us buying them a gift they’ve offered one to us in the form of a retrospective album – 16 songs, 13 culled from their three albums, assorted EPs and singles along with three previously unreleased songs.
Rising from the ashes of The Sundowns (a fine band in their own right with their 2006 album Calabasas getting a 10/10 review from Americana UK), their first recording, a self-titled six song EP was a startling debut, confident and full of swagger. Their epic song about the ‘The Muckle Spate’ of 1829, 11:15, was an immediate classic and evidence that the band were able to sing about their Scottishness amidst any amount of pedal steel and twang guitar. Since then there has been three full albums and several EPs with After All These Years cherry picking from these and while the songs aren’t in chronological order it’s a fascinating opportunity to track their progress. While they have always acknowledged their debts to the likes of Uncle Tupelo and The Jayhawks, the various musicians who have populated the band over the years have left their mark as influences as varied as hair metal bands and more left field Americana acts such as The Weakerthans have inveigled their way into what ultimately is a Wynntown Marshals sound. Much of this is down to the one point of singularity throughout the records, singer Keith Benzie who has been there from the start and who was the band’s only songwriter in the early years. His voice identifies the band and it’s little changed from the early years, his relaxed and slightly worn vocals always winning (just listen to Being Lazy and be convinced).
Although The Marshals can be considered (on paper at least) to be a bit of a moveable feast with members coming and going, in reality there’s been a healthy heartbeat throughout with only occasional surgery required. Guitarist Iain Sloan was on board for the second album, Westerner, while bassist Murdoch MacLeod was well embedded by the time The Long Haul came out. Both added not only their instrumental talents but, along with Benzie, wrote songs with the result that The Long Haul was a major step up from Westerner while the trio along with newly added keyboard player, Ritchie Noble, and drummer Kenny McCabe achieved their summit (so far) with the excellent The End Of The Golden Age. By then the band had garnered enough accolades to be signed to the premier European Americana record label, Blue Rose, a significant salute.
To the album then and it’s notable that from the start The Marshals are fully formed. From Westerner, Snowflake is a cracking country quickstep while Thunder In The Valley is a fine example of Benzie’s narrative tales and a harbinger of things to come with the addition of keyboards. Of note is their reinterpretation of LA Guns’ Ballad Of Jayne which is transformed into a very fine slice of yearning country rock, the band fully cocked, guitars squirreling around sweet pedal steel and a sturdy rhythm section. Much of this was carried onto The Long Haul, the sound more fleshed out with more democracy in the writing and it’s MacLeod’s Tide which takes the accolades here as The Marshals roam around a carousel swirl of dreamlike guitars on an impressionistic tide of sound. It’s a live favourite and deservedly so but the snappy chiming guitar rock of Canada, the churning Low Country Comedown and the magnificent Curtain Call, a tale of Victorian magic gone wrong suffused with melancholic strings, attest to the mature nature of the album.
From The End Of The Golden Age, Red Clay Hill buzzes and burns with sizzling guitars as Benzie again salutes the local landscape turning a coal bing into a romantic destination and the title song is just a joyous slice of power pop with sublime harmonies that’s as good as anything Teenage Fanclub have turned out. Meanwhile the wistful Being Lazy floats on a bed of acoustic guitars, sublime pedal steel and gilded keyboards as Benzie emotes quite wonderfully.
If the above isn’t enough to pull you in The Marshals offer up three unreleased songs. Different Drug is a reworking of a song from the first EP and an opportunity to see how the band have evolved from a country rock combo into a more organic creature, the guitars more tantalising as the keyboards add colour and warmth. Your Time is in a similar vein to the songs from The End Of The Golden Age, guitar and organ to the fore as Benzie turns his hand to another fine (and perhaps autobiographical) tale. Finally, Benzie and the band offer up a sumptuous tale of unrequited love on the glorious Odessa replete with ecclesiastic organ and a restrained but emotive guitar solo.
So, 10 years of The Wynntown Marshals, encapsulated. To go back to the opening sentence here, they are the best Americana band in the land although they transcend that genre (especially as no one seems able to define it). Simply put, The Marshals have matured into a thrilling rock band able to spin an excellent tale over their multilayered sound – in fact they sound just like, well, The Marshals. Here’s to the next ten years.
There are two gigs to celebrate their tenth anniversary and the release of After All These Years. The Voodoo Rooms in Edinburgh on September 1st and then at The Hug & Pint in Glasgow the following night. The album is available to order here.