It may only be July, but I think Sweet Billy Pilgrim’s Crown and Treaty is the best album of 2012…
When a friend bought me Crown and Treaty I knew nothing about Sweet Billy Pilgrim. From the name, I pictured an American singer, perhaps from the Deep South. With no expectations I hit the Play button. When it finished I stared, astonished, at the CD player, as though expecting it to talk to me. It said little. I played the last track Blue Sky Falls again just to make sure I hadn’t imagined how good it was. The tune builds and builds, before a guitar riff distantly related to The Beatles’ Dig a Pony bulldozes through the chorus and envelops you in a joyful wall of sound that might bring a tear to the eye if you aren’t very, very careful.
I played the CD three times straight.
It is rare to judge a record purely by how it sounds. I had no information, no X-Factor style back story of overcoming a stutter or having a slightly poorly mother-in-law to gain my sympathy.
Tragic back stories are not confined solely to reality TV. Bon Iver rocketed to fame after locking himself in a log cabin for six months whilst he sulked over a break up*. Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy was addicted to painkillers. Razorlight’s Johnny Borrell once bought a corked bottle of Burgundy in Waitrose and it was too late to take it back. Out of such tragedies can come great art.
However, Sweet Billy Pilgrim had no need for such artifice. It turns out Sweet Billy Pilgrim is not an exotic figure hewn from Mississippi mud, but a four piece band from Wingrave, Buckinghamshire consisting of Tim Elsenburg (guitar / vocals), Anthony Bishop (bass /banjo), Alistair Hamer (drums) and Jana Carpenter (guitar / vocals). In 2009 their second album Twice Born Men was nominated for a Mercury Prize. Elsenburg was a tradesman, having just installed a toilet when he got the call to say he was nominated. The album itself was recorded in a shed. (There is no record of where they kept the lawnmower and the band is strangely silent on the subject). Although they lost out to eventual winner Speech Debelle, the band regrouped, made a key hire in Jana Carpenter and (after appearing on an episode of The IT Crowd) began work on the follow up. Crown and Treaty is the result and as I have intimated, it is a beautiful and amazing record.
What does it sound like? Well – you could just press the Play button on the Spotify button below. But if that is too tricky, then cast your mind back to the scene in the sixties Batman film (bear with me here) where the United World Organization’s Security Council is kidnapped, turned to dust and improperly rehydrated, resulting in their taking on each others’ characteristics. Imagine if at the table instead of the UWO Security Council there had been various members of Elbow, Radiohead, Fleet Foxes and perhaps Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. Sweet Billy Pilgrim would have been the result. That’s what they sound like.
Perhaps you’d better use that Spotify button. We’ll move on: to Bush Hall, where Sweet Billy Pilgrim played a live show last night.
Embellished with Dan Garland on keys and Barney Muller on lead guitar, Sweet Billy Pilgrim mix Radiohead’s rhythms, Fleet-Fox harmonies and soaring choruses that Elbow would kill for. Elsenburg’s voice blends with Carpenter’s like a well-iced Hendrick’s and Tonic.
Standing on a stage slightly larger than a postage stamp, the band showed why the Mercury judges had showered them with plaudits.
SWP focused mainly on material from the last two albums, but added in an impromptu version of I Wanna Dance With Somebody (“we rehearsed this before she died, in case anyone thinks it’s in bad taste” explained Elsenburg. “It’s still in bad taste” joked Bishop).
After filming the audience to update their Facebook profile picture, the band overcame any doubts that they would be able to reproduce such an intricately beautiful album live. The performance was immaculate. Songs from Crown and Treaty sandwiched older tunes, and the main part of the show ended with the crowd singing along to Blue Sky Falls. Two encores and they were gone into the night…
After the show, Jana and Tim told me how they had connected through Twitter: “After meeting up we played Two of Us by the Beatles and a Robert Plant and Allison Krauss song” Jana explained.
Tim went on, “The audience went quiet when we played. But in the right way”.
Whilst recording the Crown and Treaty album Sweet Billy Pilgrim took the unorthodox step of performing at fans’ homes. “It was a way to keep playing and try out arrangements” explained Tim. The band will be very welcome to play at Every Record’s home. I suspect however that they will soon have better offers.
I have a tenner on them to win this year’s Mercury Prize. Buy the album. Even if you live in the USA. See them live. If Fleet Foxes can sell out Hammersmith, then this lot should eventually fill the O2. It’s rare to hear a record by a band that stops you in your tracks. Crown and Treaty is one of those records. Sweet Billy Pilgrim is one of those bands.
Record #68 : Sweet Billy Pilgrim – Blue Sky Falls
* This is a harsh view of Bon Iver’s situation….