Stealing Sheep, Madame JoJo’s, London

 

Seeing various musicians carefully arrange flute and tambourine, tune mandolin and ensure the core band members' mics can be heard, you would be forgiven for thinking this Scouse trio are preparing to take us up country for some acid folk.

Stealing Sheep are much more intriguing than that, drawing on enough influences to make them musical alchemists rather than thieving magpies. So far, the all-girl group are best known for providing the backing for a trailer promoting Channel 4’s youth-obsessed soap opera Hollyoaks and ‘Shut Eye’ provides one of the night’s highlights. Keyboardist Becky Hawley’s dry vocal floats over Emily Lansley’s supple, Richard Thompson-style guitar and a jaunty clarinet.

This calling card places Stealing Sheep in the same paddock as other female artists that combine an enigmatic persona with pop nous, notably Lykke Li and Bat For Lashes, though the rest of debut album Into The Diamond Sun proves they have a wider agenda. It helps that the three graduates of the Paul McCartney-endorsed Liverpool Institute For Performing Arts contribute equally and bring different tastes to the tea party.

In her vocals, Hawley carries some of the Scandinavian otherworldliness that makes the likes of Lykke so beguiling, while percussionist Lucy Mercer has a more conversational tone, despite her pixie-like appearance. Lansley’s more measured delivery is too quiet to reach the balcony and together the trio fail to gel when they aim for harmonic grace, as ‘Tangled Up In Stars’.

Better is when they resort to Wicker Man chants, sounding like a rootsy take on The Raincoats’ post-punk, especially with Mercer’s tribal beats. With elegant control, she moves smoothly from gentle pitter-patter to driving rhythmic storm.

Mostly, the group stay just the right side of oversweet whimsy, apart from ‘Shark Song’, when Mercer blithely suggests hiding in a shell should said predator approach. Shame, as this is one of the night’s strongest arrangements, Lush’s fuzzy swoon meeting XTC art-pop. Bolstered by three extra musicians, including wonderfully idiosyncratic fellow Liverpudlian Laura J Martin on flute and mandolin, Stealing Sheep weave dense tapestries of varying hues.

Their ambition sometimes remains greater than their ability to deliver live, so the more gossamer-light melodies lack purchase. Still, they rarely pursue the game groove for too long with plenty of detours to maintain interest. Should they momentarily fail to connect, a more engaging coda soon arrive s. Like Hollyoaks, Stealing Sheep know how to keep you hooked.

 

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