The Dronne, a river in south-west France running through the Dordogne carries double meaning when used as an album title, evoking both place and avant-garde music. North Sea Radio Orchestra seem at first glance to be a light classical ensemble - beautiful wind instruments, trained singers and tinkling percussion. However, they combine musical influences from wherever they please, including folk, and even kosmische drone, while drawing on 20th century composers such as Malcolm Arnold, Ralph Vaughan-Williams and Peter Warlock, or Jim Parker, writers of music for the poems of John Betjeman. The end result, though, is the most English thing you have ever heard.
Revolving around the gorgeous, infectious songs of Craig Fortnam and the clear, precise voice of Sharron Fortnam (the two are husband and wife), NRSO sound like nothing else. They made their name playing smaller festivals such as Green Man, and have released three albums since 2006. Dronne is their fourth, and a contender for their best work yet. It returns, to some extent to sunnier territory than 2011’s I A Moon. NSRO are closely linked to uber-cult band The Cardiacs, who infamously switched from classical melody to noise at the drop of a hat. A darker record than its predecessors, I A Moon was overshadowed by the serious illness which incapacitated Cardiacs singer Tim Smith. Perhaps because of the difficult circumstances, the album had new depth.
This tone shift can be detected on Dronne in early track ‘Vishnu Schist’, named after a layer of purple rock in the Grand Canyon. It is a piece that has the delicious melody and arrangement that are NSRO’s speciality, with oboe and bassoon. Over this Sharron intones a slow, sweet lyric which, it becomes clear, is addressed to dead person, offering them the care they should have received during their life. It is troubling, yet comforting at the same time.
Dronne is structured around five longer songs, surrounded by shorter tracks. Single ‘The British Road’ is an undefinable piece of political sarcasm about British assumptions of superiority, delivered among deep and satisfying thickets of strings, woodwind, snare drums and keyboards which create a remarkable sound. The title track is an 8 minute instrumental, a swirling mood piece with waves of strings and minimalist keyboard, a stormy emotional centre to the record that eventually blows itself out over calm seas. Other instrumental tracks are mysterious and evocative, with ‘Arcade’ a tumble of cymbals and oboe tunes like a soundtrack to a lost film and ‘Guitar Miniature No.4’, a teasing, aching acoustic guitar solo which raises questions and leaves them gently floating. ‘Dinosaurus Rex part 1’ builds from contemplation to an infectious, joyful jig.
‘Alsace Lorraine’ is a lullaby, with Craig taking the vocal lead and spinning a duet with Sharron that is both particular to a place and time and universal in its message to “Keep on floating above and above”. Dronne could be described as comfort music, which is a compliment. In a brutal world, songs that bring reassurance while acknowledging misfortune and tragedy are a precious commodity.
Dronne is available to buy from Amazon this week.