I should probably start this with something of a disclaimer, insofar as I know and am friends with Rob Ashworth, the puppet master behind Gaunt Story. However, this disclaimer is redundant in my opinion as I became friends with him at first through his musical projects. With that out of the way, let’s begin…
Companion Waves is the long-awaited follow-up to 2008’s masterful debut This Gaunt Story, and Ashworth has been a busy fellow indeed. What we have here are eleven new songs that Ashworth has clearly spent a great deal of care crafting over the past few years. Gaunt Story is possibly the archetypical example of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, and you can certainly listen to both LPs consecutively without troubling your eardrums too much. Elaborate acoustic fingerpicking? Check. Bizarre lyrics that somehow make sense? Check.
Which is not to say that there isn’t a definite sense of maturity and growth with this new batch. Indeed, there is more a sense of introspection here than previously, whether in coded lyrics (“you are Glenbeulah, Glenbeulah it’s you”) or in explicit outbursts of frustration (“will you stay around to see me go and fuck it up this time?”), Ashworth has clearly had a lot on his mind. What is also impressive is the array of instrumentation underlying a lot of these songs – backed up by drums, chimes, the odd flourish of electric guitar – with glorious production to boot, Companion Waves has both a musical and lyrical depth that its predecessor on occasion lacked. One cannot make the comparison without also mentioning that on this LP Ashworth is the sole performer (as opposed to the six or seven musicians who joined him on the debut).
The Elliott Smith influences are still there, bubbling under the surface with melodies that twist and turn this way and that, particularly on opening track Blue Charm & Silver Stoat and the title track itself. Bon Iver also comes to mind, with delicate harmonies tugging at most of the songs, and in the one minute and thirty-seven seconds of Hopeless & Wrong one can detect Will Oldham’s gloomier moments. However, Gaunt Story is much more than the sum of its influences, and has definitely created a sound of its own. This is in no small part down to Ashworth’s vocals, which have noticeably developed since 2008. Ashworth has a warm reassuring sort of voice, one that you wouldn’t mind having on your satnav to be frank. This is particularly resonant on the glorious White Walls and the closing track Lottery Reception. It’s hard to hear lines like “mother wept in the kitchen, which translates as it’s your fault / It’s not your fault” (Rails to Broad Oaks) and not be moved by the poignancy.
Clocking in at just over half an hour Rob Ashworth has created a thing of sublime beauty with this LP, with see-saw rhythms abounding that pull you into his private universe. Ideally you will consume in one sitting, as a whole piece of art it sits together so well. Frankly if we have to wait another five years for the third album I’ll be having stern words with the chap myself.