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The most immediately striking thing about “Zorbing,” a track from the young Oxford, England band Stornoway, is the strange barbershop quartet/gospel choir/sea chantey backing vocals that drop in from out of nowhere at the end of the first verse. In an era when indie bands are tossing industrial-size kitchen sinks into their arrangements, it takes ingenuity to be able to coax a “well, I wasn’t expecting that” reaction from listeners.
After that, the soaring melody of the verses and vocalist Brian Briggs’ clear, pure tenor kick in. When the trumpet swoops in towards the end, it’s clear that “Zorbing” is a fine new entry in the U.K. tradition of well-scrubbed folk-pop stretching back through James, The Housemartins and Del Amitri to early-1980s practitioners like Aztec Camera, Haircut 100, and The Bluebells. Roddy Frame, Edwyn Collins, or Nick Heyward would not be embarrassed to have the song in their catalogs.
In these days of fractured musical fandom, Stornoway’s hopes of reaching a larger audience are likely limited, which is a shame. 4AD completists will snatch them up, then wonder why they don’t really sound much like anything else on 4AD (which is releasing their debut LP, Beachcomber’s Windowsill, on August 8th), and fans of alt-folk in general will likely find them enjoyable. But in another era, they might have been huge–they’re talented, photogenic (the entire band is a preview of what the offspring of Ryan Reynolds and Scarlett Johansson will grow up to look like once they couple starts squeezing out young ‘uns), and immensely likeable. And with “Zorbing” they’ve written a song as good as “Love Plus One,” “Oblivious,” or any number of other clean-cut U.K. pop hits which are now considered classics.