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Album Review
Spirit Lights

Spirit Lights
by Family Cactus

Arch Hill Records

Review Date
22nd June, 2011
Reviewed by
Natalie Finnigan

It’s fair to say that adversity is a friend of a songwriter searching for inspiration. The factor determining the quality of the end result, however, is almost always whether they can see through said adversity and harness its energy.

Spirit Lights is the second album from Wellington ensemble Family Cactus, a constantly evolving band of musicians who have undergone a remarkable number of changes in the last two years. Most of the original members are no longer with the band, and since the release of Spirit Lights there have been further changes to the line-up. This has undoubtedly made for a complicated creative process, but I also think it has made for a better album.

Come Howling was favourably touted for its indie-rock sensibilities and appreciated for the broad influences that gave it an eclectic, yet somehow familiar Wellingtonian sound. Lead singer and guitarist Adam Ladley confessed that they were surprised by the album’s reception because they believed it was a naive record in many ways. This is a slightly harsh self-assessment, but with Spirit Lights you start to understand what he meant.

Ladley’s song-writing is narrative-based; landscapes and the natural environment feature as strong motifs, alluding to the path of the soul through life and death, searching for some kind of meaningful connection.

Opening track ‘Fields and fields’ is a driving indie-rock song reminiscent of the Bruce Springsteen and Don Henley circa 1980. The guitar riff instantly made me think of Henley’s ‘Boys of Summer’ in the way it invokes a sense of nostalgia laced with regret.

This album also showcases a heavier side of the band, with songs such as ‘Empty Nest Egg’ and ‘Dark Science’ bringing an intensity we hadn't seen from them before.

Though Ladley’s songs have always been somewhat dark lyrically, this album explores that darkness musically. The layered and textural arrangements contrast with the minimalist and poetic approach to song-writing. These songs are definitely intended to make you feel something before you think about them. This is particularly evident in the changes to the percussion section. Many of the songs on Spirit Lights are driven by the driven by forceful and relentless drum parts that add vital urgency to songs that may have otherwise lacked fervour.

Spirit Lights is a beautiful collection of stories about identity and belonging, connection and separation, love and loss… It has been beautifully composed and arranged to create an entire landscape in which the stories play out, full of rich imagery and existential angst.


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