Ben McElroy: How I Learnt to Disengage from the Pack review – shining a light in tough times | Music


Ben McElroy first made music as a teenager experimenting with cassette recorders. His adult process may have upgraded to a laptop, but his primary tools remain doggedly lo-fi: accordions in such a state of distress that they fall apart before the end of a song, disintegrating audio equipment, plus well-worn string instruments, whistles and guitars. All often come together to create a shivering seabed of sound: when his barely there vocals appear, as they do on the title track, it evokes a haunting.

How I Learnt to Disengage from the Pack album cover
How I Learnt to Disengage from the Pack album cover

How I Learnt to Disengage from the Pack recalls the ambient/indie-folk of groups such as Epic45, with technology adding texture – although McElroy’s tunes are often cast in more traditional clothes. Store Away for a Winters Day features a fiddle pivoting and swooping over a pretty soft drone, while Hedgehogs begins like a piece of 8-bit rural weirdness (carrying hints of the Ghost Box record label’s output) before blossoming into something straighter, but still playful and free. See More engineers webs of bright guitars before the tune turns into a processed, enveloping shimmer – suggesting a dazzle in communion with the natural world – while Wolves Dance yomps with grit on its boots, leading off from a cello towards whistles that create their twisted Celtic lament, accompanied by scattershot hand drums.

Deeper stuff also lurks in its layers. Buried birdsong in From Time to Time casts the bouncy tune after it in a strange sheen, while electronic decay rubs and twitches throughout. A teacher by day, McElroy recorded this album in snatches over five years. Finishing it coincided with him moving out of a much-loved home: he wonders whether we can hear that loss in its fissures. If anything, this record is too pretty, and could do with more baring of teeth. Nevertheless, it remains a beautiful early year listen, shining a light in tough times.

Also out this month

NiteworksA’ Ghrian is the Skye band’s third album of Gaelic and Scots tunes taken down the trance rave-up. When it works it’s perversely fantastic, although it has to stray far from folk – you’d never guess that Gura Mise Tha Fo Èislein (I Am Full of Grief) was based on a traditional tune – but too often past and present jar for the pipers going poppers-o’clock. Nancy Kerr’s meaty and moving The Poor Shall Wear the Crown: Songs by Leon Rosselson (Little Dish) explores the political songbook of the folk club singer, children’s writer and Russian refugee. Prolific mid-Wales musician Toby Hay’s Live at Hyde Park Folk Festival (self-released) is yet another gorgeous release by the skilful guitarist, David Grubb and Aidan Thorne supporting him subtly with strings.

This review was updated on 14 January to correct an error: McElroy’s album coincided with him moving out of his home, not with the end of a relationship.


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Originally posted 2022-01-14 23:23:32.


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