REVIEW: Ward Thomas – ‘Cartwheels’

13413130_788858567882242_6660735348292161866_nI never thought I’d see the day when a country album sat at the top of the UK all-genre album chart. Even more so, I never thought I’d see a British country act at the top. Ward Thomas have done it – an unheard-of achievement that has taken everybody by surprise. It’s a wonderful statement for country music in the UK after such a promising summer of festivals. A few years ago, this would have been pie in the sky. Supported by Sony Music who have clearly gone to town on the promotional side of things, Ward Thomas could be the trailblazers for the immense up and coming home-grown talent in the genre.

Does it live up to the hype? In parts, yes. In parts, no. Does it continue the familiar raw, traditionally-orientated sound of their debut album ‘From Where We Stand’? In parts, yes. In parts, no. It’s a real mixed bag. When I saw them headlining at Buckle & Boots Festival not too long ago, I was surprised at the heavy pop influence in much of the new material they performed. Having heard the new album in its studio form, it still leaves me with that same feeling. However, there are also a number of highlights that are classic Ward Thomas and will keep the loyal fans happy.

‘Carry You Home’ is the exception to my previous point. It’s poppy, mainstream and slightly artificial. But it has to be said, this is a real anthem and despite having only been released a couple of weeks before Buckle & Boots, the place was rocking when this one kicked in. Drastically different to anything they’ve ever released in the past, but it was an exciting introduction to the duo’s slightly different direction.

The title track ‘Cartwheels’ is the stand-out track and I’ve been desperate for the studio version ever since I heard it at C2C in 2015. Their performance on the satellite stage was a real goose bump moment; it’s sublime and it allows Catherine and Lizzy to show off their vocal prowess like never before. “I’ve been doing Cartwheels, anything to save us, anything to make you notice me”. Hard-hitting, powerful lyrics that many will surely relate to. Nothing more required than a couple of acoustic guitars and some beautiful strings towards the end. The best song they’ve released to date.

‘Good On You’ follows suit and is arguably the next chapter in the story after ‘Cartwheels’. The duo truly reaches their full potential with their ballads and with simplistic backing, which gives them the freedom to tell a story and take us to another place. The track has a Girl Crush-style guitar backing and the girls (Lizzy predominantly, on lead vocals) pour out their heart and soul beautifully in an incredibly deep, emotional track, conveying the heartbreak with such power. An album full of this kind of material would be an absolute delight.

Unfortunately, there are a few tracks that just don’t bring out the best in them. Catherine and Lizzy have the ability to be such fantastic songwriters as we know, but “look at her hair, look at her make-up runnin’, I guess somebody had a good time last night. Aren’t those still the same clothes? Wonder if her boyfriend knows” on ‘When It’s Not Me’ just doesn’t do it for me. There are times on this album where they target the Maddie & Tae, Kelsea Ballerini vibe; I wish they would just stick to what they do best and give us hearty, raw country. The same could be said for ‘Boomerang’ which didn’t require much imagination – “You got me spinning like a boomerang, I keep on coming back to you”. Having said that, it’s infectious and you’ll have it stuck in your head for the rest of the day. But being the lyrics fanatic that I am, it doesn’t really cut the mustard.

The last 3 tracks are much needed and remind us of Catherine and Lizzy’s immense talent. ‘Proof’ brings us back to the good old Ward Thomas days; it would fit onto the debut album seamlessly. A beautifully simplistic country melody with a refreshing, optimistic tale of finding love. This is followed by ‘Who I’m Not’, a reflection on life and an acceptance of one’s self, refusing to let others influence who you are as an individual. Another gentle ballad that allows their vocals to take the spotlight and blow us away.

The album finishes with ‘Safe’, an ambiguously-written story based on somebody who has survived through difficult circumstances. This is in a different league to any of the mainstream attempts thrown in throughout this sophomore project. “You don’t have to be quiet and you don’t have to feel ashamed. This is not your war to fight and you’re not to blame. I know you’ve been stumbling, searching for a place to hide and heal, somewhere you can rest, forgive yourself and feel….you’re safe here”. A gorgeous track that draws you in to the heartbreak of the person in question and leaves you craving more from the story. That’s how you finish an album in style.

Overall, a very commendable effort from Ward Thomas. It’s amazing what a record deal with Sony Music can do isn’t it? The production value throughout, thanks to Martin Terefe and Jimmy Hogarth, is stunning, and it’ll be difficult (and very expensive!) for unsigned UK talent to match the quality of it. As discussed, the quality of the songs themselves is questionable at times but there’s enough ‘great’ here to outweigh the ‘forgettable’. It’s a great time for UK country music at the moment and hopefully Ward Thomas’ success can be replicated by a few more of our talented artists. Ben and Crissie, your turn next!