Two years ago, Tom McShane took himself and his troupe of thirteen musicians down to the Oh Yeah! Music Centre in Belfast. With the small audience gathered there morphing into the band’s final member, they recorded the ten songs of ‘The Ural Winter’ over two live sessions in the one day. Rejecting the comforts of a studio for this slightly riskier approach may have been a brave decision, though one listen to the album, only released last June, quickly proves that it paid off. Forty minutes after first pressing the play button, you come away feeling like you know the man and the experiences behind the music.
In every sense possible, this feels like a very genuine, candid and intimate piece of work. Written both during and in the wake of a tumultuous and difficult period of his life, the songs are achingly personal and revealing. The fuzzy edges and raw energy of the live setting seep through every note, giving them all a refreshingly unpolished, uncontrived personality. With strings whirling around rich brass sections while drums echo around gentle guitar riffs, they flit between the melancholy and the more hopeful, punching the emotional force of a Katie Taylor left hook as they do.
Part of the trick here is McShane’s ability to keep things simple: it’s the subtle changes in the background which boost the tracks from “good” to “great”. Fighter, The Ural Winter and One Man Band, for example, all anchored in a hearty folk-based sound, can vary their construction and introduce the full band without becoming over-complicated. Each beat of the drum, each blast of the horn, and each turn in McShane’s stunning vocals is so considered that the story he came here to tell is never overshadowed.
Bookending the album, opener The Water and closer Flowers are delicate, heartfelt explorations of inner anguish, underpinned by gorgeously soft guitars and restrained piano. Love Is Hard and especially A Personal Narrative of A Life At Sea Part II, owing some credit to the audience, provide a darker, edgier twist to proceedings, while the swooping strings of the sometimes distorted, crashing Private Rooms change the mood again with a sense of no-nonsense motivation.
My Nadir is very possibly the finest moment on the album, though. Shuffling percussion, sombre vocals, lonely trumpets and a barely-there piano meet together for six brutally honest but gloomy minutes of despondency. It’s intense and heavy-going but still beautiful at the same time.
With ‘The Ural Winter’, Tom McShane somehow manages to offload a bleak and desolated time in his life without weighing you down. It’s like a conversation with an old friend in difficulty: it could be unsettling to hear how they feel, but both of you are glad and better off for having shared it. This is an album that gives as much as it takes, and one that really deserves to be appreciated.