Country Jukebox Jury – Ward Thomas and Ferris & Sylvester

Ward Thomas – Invitation

It took me a while to appreciate Ward Thomas’ third album Restless Minds, which was all about social media anxiety and being young, but once I did I learned what excellent songwriters the twins are. In advance of Invitation’s release Ward Thomas fans heard Meant To Be Me, a reminiscin’ song with fingersnaps and past relationships; chirpy Hold Space, which picks up on themes from the third album and sounds like some tracks off the Taylor Swift album Lover; and Painted Legacy, one of those break-up ballads that Ward Thomas do so well.

Don’t Be A Stranger has contemporary production, handclaps on the offbeat and a sweet melody in a minor key. A similar mood is struck on My Favourite Poison, which the girls worked on with Ed Harcourt, a supremely underrated songwriter. The swoop of the arrangement, with piano and orchestra, is the winning ingredient here.

Someday, a waltz about the fear of commitment with some fine chords, has been getting some radio airplay on Chris Country and Radio 2, the latter station slapping it on the B List. It will be on their Greatest Hits whenever it emerges. Talking of Radio 2, Ward Thomas played a session for Bob Harris’ Country Show. They played a stunning acoustic version of Sweet Time, which opens the album mellifluously and in a well-produced manner.

Open Your Mind’s opening line is ‘closed like a coffee shop no one likes’ and continues to list doors, theme parks and worlds which are closed before the girls invite the audience to open their mind to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’. It’s very middle of the dirt road and charming, with a great chorus and a proper middle eight. Little Mix would do a good job with this too. Wait Up gallops along with purpose, as the girls ask the guy to hold off from sleeping. The banjo loops in the background give it a country flavour.

Dear Me is a You Go Girl a cappella song in the form of a letter, set to some sweet oohs and aahs with a suitably hortatory lyric. ‘You don’t need to carry this alone,’ the girls sing. If There Were Words is another pretty love song which recalls their song This Too Will Pass. It’s a song about dealing with grief that will comfort many listeners, especially in this pandemic era.

They were due to play acoustic shows in the spring; when I saw them in Blackpool last autumn they shone when their voices took centre stage. As with album three, my complaint here is that sometimes the production gets in the way of the voices, but the production will ensure they are played on Radio 2 and drive listeners to their albums. I still think the twins are ‘Radio 2 pop’, which Americans call Adult Contemporary, rather than country.

If you need to know where the twins’ market is, look at the last three tracks: a duet with James Blunt called Halfway, which was rotated on Radio 2; a live version of Human by The Killers with their tourmate Jack Savoretti, himself a darling of Radio 2; and a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide, which became a country music standard through the Dixie Chicks’ version.

UK country music, at the elite level where The Shires dwell, is pop music with a bit of emotion and plays-on-words. In the US, Kelsea Ballerini, Carrie Underwood and Maren Morris are doing the same thing, and you can see why Ward Thomas are being sold as country in the way James Blunt and Jack Savoretti can’t be. I think it’s their most fully realised album and you can tell they are in control of their career. I think this’ll crash in at 1 or 2; if it’s 1, it’ll be well deserved. 4/5 for Invitation. I accept!

Ferris & Sylvester – I Should Be On A Train EP

Bob Harris likes Ferris & Sylvester so much that he named them his Emerging Artist at the 2020 UK Americana Music Awards. I caught the duo live in Norwich 18 months ago and chatted to them about future writing plans. They have followed up their Made In Streatham EP from 2018 – some of whose tracks have over a million Spotify streams – with a five-track EP titled after recent single I Should Be On a Train.

I heard that song, which mixes rock, blues and roots, on their session for Ricky Ross’ Another Country show on BBC Scotland. Ricky is a fan too, as is Baylen Leonard from Country Hits Radio. As well as talking about their time as a regular performing act at Camden Town’s Spiritual Bar (Jade Bird is a good friend), the pair played Knock You Down, the poppiest track on an EP which includes a lockdown cover the pair did of Joe Cocker’s version of With A Little Help from my Friends.

Everyone Is Home sets lockdown blues to an egg shaker and some mellow organ chords. Birds chirp to accompany the pair on the outro which quotes the Queen (via Vera Lynn) telling us ‘we’ll meet again’. Good Man is menacing, weird and demands repeated listens to lock into the rhythm and mood of the song, which is full of chromatic progressions and bolshy riffs. There are even a few bars of sitar. It’s about the lessons imparted to kids but the sound overwhelms the lyrics.

Ferris & Sylvester have received funding from PRS for Music to travel to Austin, Texas for South by South West and I think this decade will see millions more falling for two talented musicians with a grasp on several styles of music. A full album beckons and, with any luck, it’ll be in association with a major label who can promote their talent. 5/5

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