Formed in London by Newcastle singer/lyricist Johnny Brown, the Band of Holy Joy was something of a theatrical English analogue to Poi Dog Pondering: a large and loose ensemble of varied semi-acoustic instrumentation (fiddle, accordion, harmonium, piano, trombone) that created idiosyncratic music in a number of nostalgic traditions. With nods to folk, cabaret, busking and literature, the group’s records are emotional and articulate, using tasteful understatement and rustic simplicity to sell songs with unpredictably offbeat lyrical concerns. If Brown’s voice weren’t quite so artless or so overbearing at times, his band might have been a bit more of a joy.
The septet’s first American release, Manic, Magic, Majestic, employs a string quartet and offers such sitting-room square dances as the post-romantic “Tactless” and “K.C.T.,” an American travelogue that ends with a car being torched. Less stylish but more involving, Positively Spooked has brisk, energetic rocking arrangements (with too much snare snap). While “Because It Was Never Resolved” rolls the Smiths and the Pogues together, Brown does a bit of a Marc Almond turn on “Bitten Lips,” a song about a Marilyn Monroe impersonator who killed herself.