Ward Thomas, by my metrics, are the most successful UK country act of the C2C era. The Shires have never had a number one album but Cartwheels, the second Ward Thomas release in 2016, did top the chart. Lizzie and Catherine aren’t even 30; this year Lizzie will become a mum and Catherine an aunt, so they have followed the example of their good friends and put out an album just before maternity leave strikes.
Their fifth release follows the poppy Invitations, which did feature a duet with Cam. It returns them to the country sound of their debut release From Where We Stand. This is smart, given that they launch it the weekend of Country2Country and host the Radio 2 stage aka the Indigo venue. By this time, they have defined their British Country sound, influenced by the kind of production you get on MOR tracks which are added to Radio 2’s playlist.
Their sizeable following means that their tour will take in mid-sized venues: the Barbican in the City of London, the Albert Hall in Manchester and The Forum in Bath. Credit is due to their label and/or management who see that they can make a return on their investment.
I was impressed when I caught them in Blackpool in 2019 and at the Union Chapel in 2022. Their songs have great melodies and structures, but the key is listener involvement. Carry You Home is their career song because it has a magical melody and lots of space for singalongs. Their music is true to them as twentysomething girls from the South of England, particularly No Filter and the delightful Hold Space. It may not be aimed at me, a 35-year-old from Watford, but I can appreciate craft and expertise.
The rollout for this album previewed half of it, which also revealed a fine producer in Ed Harcourt, a veteran who had hits in the early 2000s including Karaoke Soul. Justice & Mercy is one of those brooding tracks that is made to sound rootsy thanks to ‘hum’ backing vocals and a heavy thump on the drums. The lyric is almost a pastiche of outlaw country, outlining a case where half the town want punishment for the man who ‘swindled the good in each neighbourhood…across the whole South…the devil had a baby and he’s coming for you’.
The title track was written with the twins’ core contributors Rebekah Powell and Jess Sharman. ‘Stand up! Make noise! Hey hey hey we’re alive!’ is a perfect example of a participatory hook, as the girls know that the people coming to see them need to feel part of the show. This will sound extraordinary at the Indigo and provide one of the moments of the weekend.
Next To You might rival it, a midtempo love song whose melody positively swoons and which includes a few bars of handclap a cappella for the final chorus. Ditto Loved By You, a piano ballad fit for weddings which opens with a line that ends ‘on the shoulder of the highway’, sung over reverberating piano chords: ‘with you I’ve changed, I’m finally brave enough’ is a warm, welcoming hook.
All Over Again opens with one of the girls (I can never tell which, but I think it’s Lizzy) having a ‘quarter-life crisis’; the chorus opens up with major-key optimism and Ed’s spacious production which sounds organic, as if the room’s sound has been captured without the need for post-production ‘in the box’. I don’t know why they’ve chosen to boost the PRS statements of Andy Burrows and Johnny Borrell from Razorlight by covering America, their 2006 number one which – FUN FACT – held off a campaign to get David Hasselhoff’s Jump In My Car to the top. Simpler times.
If It All Ends Today is a pretty piano ballad about love and stuff where ‘none of this is guaranteed’. Joan of Arc, which is an Ed Harcourt co-write, has the twins declaiming that they’re ‘starting a war’ and asking the addressee to ‘realise the shit I’ve sacrificed’. Oddly, this doesn’t count as explicit language so the track is not marked with an E on Spotify. I Think I Hate You is one of the politest and most melodic of kiss-offs, which any David Cassidy fans will appreciate because it twists the title of his old hit I Think I Love You. Not even an F-word can convince the censors to mark it with parental guidance; perhaps they couldn’t believe they had it in them!
Love Does sounds like the sort of slowie that Ben Earle would write, and it makes sense that Aaron Eshuis, a renowned Music Row writer who has worked with Ryan Hurd and Scotty McCreery, was in the room. The Eshuis-produced Unravel is another one of the girls’ ‘You’ve Got A Friend’ songs with empathy for its addressee – ‘your heart is stitched on a tight sleeve’ – with call-and-response vocals cementing the lyric: ‘let it unravel and when you do I’ll hold the line’.
The album ends with Flower Crowns, a 100%-er by the girls who also produced it. They create a sonic bed of wordless aahs over which they sing about eternal love. It is the best moment of the album where the two voices blend magnificently. There’s perhaps a bit too much unison vocals but this may be the point: two Ward Thomas sisters, one Ward Thomas sound.