The Memory Band calls itself an English folk “supergroup”: perhaps this is somewhat justified, given the fact that most of its members come from other, more established bands. On the other hand, there’s nothing the least bit super about their second full-length and U.S. debut, Apron Strings, which sounds as though it was the last priority for every artist involved. Among those putting in appearances here are Adem Ilhan (of Fridge and solo fame), Jennymay Logan (Elysian Quartet), Al Doyle (Hot Chip), and Simon Lord (ex-Simian). The group’s clear frontman, however, is Stephen Cracknell, whose resumé includes electronica work as Gorodisch and a stint as bassist for Badly Drawn Boy. Despite Cracknell’s dominant presence, the various threads gathered together on Apron Strings fail to cohere.
To what extent The Memory Band can really be labeled “folk” is debatable: despite the fact that they rely primarily upon acoustic instrumentation (with some electronically-aided production and percussion loops) and cover some traditional material, they seem more aligned with a tepid current of “respectable” British pop. Their takes on traditional British folk tunes (“Blackwaterside,” “Green Grows the Laurel”) are curiously sterile and unenthusiastic, while Cracknell’s acoustic originals sound like throwaway impromptu sessions recorded down at the local pub. That brings us to the covers, which aren’t particularly folk-friendly either. Cracknell and Co. transform Rotary Connection’s “Want You To Know” (the band also takes its name from the Rotary Connection track “Memory Band”) into a bloodless and syrupy acoustic ballad, and a similar procedure is applied to Carly Simon’s “Why.” Apron Strings’s final and best track is a take on Ronnie Lane’s “The Poacher,” which benefits from a fuller arrangement than most of the album and sticks fairly close to the original.
The Memory Band is clearly Stephen Cracknell’s project, and Apron Strings, despite the talent of the supporting players, can’t overcome his limitations in songwriting and his lack of musical vision. The album feels like the work of a loose-knit collective without any real guiding force, the product of a bunch of friends recording for their own pleasure in their spare time, and without much concern for the end result.
By Michael Cramer