Formed in London in the mid-’90s by multi-instrumentalists Mark Brend, Matt Gale and Cliff Glanfield, Fariña bucked the era’s prevailing winds. Cool Britons sent US grunge invaders packing, delving into UK music history to assert a new (albeit largely recycled and parochial) rock identity, but Fariña embraced Johnny Foreigner, looking nostalgically back across the pond to singer-songwriters like Tim Hardin and David Ackles for inspiration. (Indeed, Brend quite literally wrote the book on that genre: American Troubadours: Groundbreaking Singer-Songwriters of the 60s).
The band assembled its DIY debut between 1995 and 2000. Three People was recorded on aged equipment — a 286 PC running ’80s sequencing software and an eight-track reel-to-reel — and employs a hodgepodge of acoustic and electronic gear, from basic rock instrumentation to autoharp and melodica to early drum machines and synths to mysterious found sounds. All of this gives Fariña’s rich, melodic songs an endearingly wheezy, slightly off-kilter character. (Brend also wrote a book on that topic: Strange Sounds: Offbeat Instruments and Sonic Experiments in Pop.) While this material displays American influences and also draws on Ennio Morricone’s ’60s Western soundtracks, “Confession TV” and “Liberty” are pop songs worthy of any time or place. Moreover, Fariña’s work oozes an unmistakable Englishness, the sort that makes an art of quotidian gloominess — particularly on the resignedly melancholy “Regret in Advance” and “Animals in the Zoo.” Although each band member pitches in to the songwriting, Brend’s work stands out. Above all, he has a wry, masterful turn of phrase: “I may be green but I can’t conserve / Energy to take me up the learning curve,” he quietly frets on “Liberty.” This is a charming album, brimming with wistful symphonic pop-on-a-shoestring that could have been recorded in a dusty old musical curiosity shop adrift in the middle of the Atlantic.
“Allotments” are quintessentially English places to potter around at your own pace on weekends, frittering away leisure time cultivating fruit and veg. How appropriate, then, that Fariña should choose to name its second album after these modest gardens. This is the fruit of the band’s self-sufficient labor, after toiling away with its slowly gestating sounds for another five years. Now operating as a quartet, with another musical jack-of-all-trades, Tim Conway, Fariña continues to work the same fertile musical ground. The sound is sometimes bigger, slightly more polished, with further random items added to the instrumental rattlebag: cardboard box, flugelhorn, shaker, banjo ukulele. Again, glorious Morricone-esque brass is a distinctive feature. Trumpet and slide guitar combine to bittersweet effect on “Marie Celeste,” while the upbeat, horn-buoyed drive of “Island of Hotels” evokes Love and Calexico. Gale, Conway and Brend split the songwriting, but Brend’s tales of everyday ennui and romance-gone-awry are the most immediately attractive, especially the self-deprecating chamber-pop ballad “Never Any Good” and “Sales Force,” a meditation on intrusive telemarketers (“Can I call you back at seven? / All cold callers go to heaven”). That’s not to undervalue the others’ contributions. Gale’s woozy electro-acoustic elegy to love, “Nothing Seems to Last,” matches the Blue Nile for yearning melancholy; Conway pulls out all the stops with “Sleep,” a campy theatrical melodrama that’s all harpsichord and squelchy synth. With such a snail-like work-rate, Fariña might not be the hardest-working band in show business, but Allotments proves, once more, that the results are well worth the wait.