Oktoba is the brainchild of Brighton-based singer-songwriter Chris Athorne. His debut EP Tales and Shadows was positively received last year, so Athorne has wasted no time in assembling a good cast of supporting musicians for an album proper, enlisting the manifold talents of Tim Bidwell as producer and engineer. Bidwell, best known for his work with fellow Brightonian Kate Walsh, clearly lavishes wagonfuls of care and attention on his subjects and, as a result, this release sounds fantastic. There’s oodles of space and texture in the arrangements and it’s impeccably recorded and mixed, as you might expect. All this really helps Oktoba stand out among the vast crowd of confessional male songsters vying for our attention.
The jaunty opener and title track ‘Smoke Signals’, drenched in pedal steel and shuffling snare, sets out Oktoba’s stall well with a gentle, Americana sound. It’s a song of new beginnings “We pack our bags and wave to home / suddenly we’re on our own” and nicely encapsulates the moods of the album: determination, regret, hope and, of course, the thrill of roadrunning into the wide yonder. It’s a good introduction to Athorne’s husky but warm vocal style too and the spare campfire vibe of ‘Something New’ casts him as some kind of blissed-out Ray Lamontagne, perfectly paired with Cordelia Gartside who contributes harmonies to the track.
So far, so good, but I knew there’d be a catch: whistling! I seldom forgive this in real life, let alone on record, but the catchiness of ‘Aeroplane’ is nevertheless undeniable and is destined to irritate all the other curmudgeons who share my intolerance, should it ever be picked up for a TV ad, which I can well imagine happening.
No matter, Oktoba is back in my good books in no time and with the Hammond organ hovering above, like a watchful angel, ‘On My Mind’ reeks of Ryan Adams in all the right sorts of ways. Its gospel backing vocals bleed perfectly into smatterings of slide guitar and everything is perfectly spaced and placed. The song feels like it could and should go all epic but instead it stays very restrained, calling it a day at just three and half minutes. Lovely.
‘Run’ has a refreshingly English sound in its vocal delivery, somewhere between Get Cape, Wear Cape, Fly and Benjamin Francis Leftwich. I think it’s good for acts like Oktoba, who effectively go for a fully American sound, to manage to state their Britishness somehow without it jarring and ‘Run’ navigates this well. Conversely, ‘Wind Fire Water Stone’, a duet with Bo Lucas, is far too Nashville for my tastes so I’m glad that Athorne’s native accent returns on the terrific single ‘Tongue Tied’, with its beautifully understated cello lines, handled deftly by the superbly named Jocasta Whippy.
After a palate-cleansing acoustic guitar intro, the fashionable octave vocals of ‘Sticks and Stones’ arrive. I’m immediately bewitched by them, along with the track’s inspired waterfalling piano and ghostly spangles of tremolo guitar. Production-wise, it’s pleasing that it takes us a little step outside the trappings of the folk/Americana conventions that bind the rest of the album together (the reversed vibes are a particular treat) and it helps that the song beneath is one of the strongest on offer. Recalling some of the themes of the title track, it deals with lovelessness, indecision and that universal desire to rise from the ashes and just start anew.
The simple love song ‘You to Me’ swings us off into the sunset (it’s the sort of song that sounds as if it was actually recorded on horseback) and brings proceedings to a close with a howling one-note harmonica. It’s a fitting end to a remarkably strong record from a very promising artist. The album has enough modernity to appeal to the young (at least I imagine it does - not being so youthful myself) but is steeped in enough tradition to appeal to those who can still remember a time before Gram Parsons and Neil Young had even emerged (these people are quite a lot older than me, just so you know). With great songs and a great voice, a following wind could be all Oktoba needs to send Smoke Signals towards the recognition it deserves.
Review by Rich Barnard.