The Brecon Beacons is a remarkable place. It is a landscape that can evoke so much emotion. On the sunniest or crispest days it is a stunning, inspiring spectacle, enchanting even, as anyone who has visited Green Man could testify. However, it can also be a hostile environment. It has long played host to military training exercises, famed for the tough experience it ensures, sometimes fatally.
The changing of the seasons in this corner of the country can be blunt. As poor weather sets in it can overwhelm even the hardiest of visitors. As the dark clouds and rain rolls over the mountaintops, it can be like the end of days. Maybe that is some of what influenced the This Is The Kit when penning their new album, or maybe it was the news that they were seeking to escape as the decamped into the wild.
You can feel the worries, concerns and stress of 2020 oozing out of Off Off On, the newest release and fifth studio album by This Is The Kit, their first release since 2018’s Moonshine Freeze, a record that saw the irritatingly talented Kate Stables nominated for an Ivor Novello. The title of this record though is apt for these bizarre times, when society feels like it being switched on and off continually, populations being asked to pause their lives without notice, while many of the themes heard throughout echo how so many have felt over the past few months.
We kick off with Found Out, with that unmistakable sound of Stable’s picked guitar, her gorgeous vocals overlapping and enveloping within themselves as she throws a back and forth a conversation with herself, asking herself to ‘ask herself’ (are you still following?). Hearing this track is like a warm embrace, a reminder that despite the turmoil some things still remain - This Is The Kit being one of them.
There are a stream of themes in this album but central among them are dealing with your troubles through resilience and going back to basics - maybe that trip to the Brecons is a key indicator of her realising this. Those sentiments run throughout Started Again, with its repetitive call of ‘rocks and water’, which are bedded by a gorgeous jazz trumpet that creates a sturdy sound to the track.
Show stealer is single This Is What You Did. Through the ringing banjo accompanied by hurried drums, a sound of an anxiety attack is created, as if you are laid in bed reflecting on a difficult day that has passed or dreading what is to come tomorrow. Stables herself having questioned why she was ‘putting everyone through the stressful experience of listening to this song?’, but, as she suggests, it acts as an exorcism, allowing you to scream out the pressures of these times, the last few months in particular. We can take back control.
There is a return to those elegant horns in No Such Thing after a looped intro, followed by succulent percussion - producer Josh Kaufman has worked wonders - while Stables states that the protagonist must take ‘it on the chin…you must master this’ before the band reply ‘I do not see that’. The guitar lick at the end is simply gorgeous.
The musicianship is only going to increase from here, starting with Slider, where we enter something of a jazz heaven, the woodwinds taking centre stage as the woes of homesickness and striking a sensible work-life balance are aired, the latter a likely concern for a musician who has spent countless months on the road finally finding themselves grounded. Subtle saxophone from Lorenzo Prati litters the track, as Stable strikes a more down tone, stating ‘give it up, let it go’ as she tackles this perennial issue head on - this is a stunning piece of work. The jazz wonderfulness continues at pace, with the spiralling Coming To Get You Nowhere covered in brass grooves. It’s another stunner, the musicianship exquisite as Stables sings of being stuck, finding herself in a rut, with line ‘energy, energy, please’ repeated.
Stable’s wider influences continue to be unleashed, as Carry Us Please, with its simple, almost sparse opening, picks up, dragging sounds and instruments in before temporarily casting them aside but, inevitably, rising, heavenward, engulfing all before it before the conclusion of the track.
We reach the title track. ‘Breathe out, breathe in’ we are told; it’s the mantra in this calming song. Its simplicity stark compared to the tracks that preceded it, but that is rightfully so considering the subject matter. Stables tackles the concept of losing someone and ‘how we deal with that’, placing the listener in that position, questioning how it would feel to know your life is coming to an end. It’s a difficult subject, mortality, but during a pandemic where a fatal virus is headline news everyday for months, it is a subject firmly in our lives.
We are entering the closing stages of the records and are greeted but more muted tones, with Shinbone Soap, a track focused on solitude, initially just Stable and her guitar as she finger picks her way through this delicate song before the delicate keys from by the “magic organ” add real depth to the track. It is set perfectly alongside Was Magician, where Stables pulls upon the writing of Urusla K. Le Guin, her protagonist identifying and realising her gifts and power, seeking to fulfil her potential. The vocals are tinted with melancholy but really with empathy for the female protagonist Stables sings of. The wholesomeness of the sound in this track is surely down to the band recording this live, but it doesn’t lose any of its delicateness. Gorgeous.
And then we reach the end. Keep Going cracks open with that familiar looping guitar, softly building, bouncing upon both its beat and the accompanying piano, pulling on all elements of the music that makes them the band so many love. By the standards of This Is The Kit, this is an odyssey of a track and a fantastic closer. While the album is littered with references to anxiety, death and the need to ground oneself, Keep Going reminds the listener that, despite the personal and societal neuroses of 2020, there is a need for us to do as the song title suggests. It pulls upon the album’s other themes - of resilience, of hope, potential and immunity - providing that positive ending the album needed, a reminder to us all that even now, in the worst of times, we can grasp to this single idea.