Newton Faulkner tends to divide the opinions of music fans across the world. Some see him as an innovative acoustic guitarist whose incorporations of percussive hits on the same instrument provide a fresh backing to a historically saturated market. Others take the view that his musical additions to the genre sit flush with other such artists as Jack Johnson, not necessarily bad but not a shining star either. Now, love him or hate him, Faulkner certainly has staked his claim on many an acoustic stage internationally. Now into his fourth studio album with Studio Zoo, has Faulkner’s original breakthrough success carried through into his now blossoming career?
Studio Zoo breaks in with a soft, gentle approach compared to some of Faulkner’s other albums. There’s no separated intro track here, it’s straight off from the word go. Instantly we are reminded of the reasons why the first album made it’s mark, with flowing guitar riffs and soft percussive hand hits. There’s a clear progression of maturity here, with additional backing vocals and a clean, crisp sound. There’s no doubting the production behind this; each track ebbs into the next smoothly, and focus is shifted around each piece to allow for all layers to be heard.
If there’s one thing to be said about it though, even from a fan of the back catalogue; the style may have matured, but it hasn’t evolved all that much. If anything, it’s become even more minimalistic than before. Now, coming from an album titled Studio Zoo, it could be interpreted differently to each person. Perhaps Faulkner was caged in a studio until he produced this latest collection – an idea that isn’t far from the truth. In fact, Faulkner decided to stream the entire recording process live for all to listen to. A brave move for any artist to be sure, but an idea that serves to bring the fans and the music creation just a bit closer together.
In terms of content, the lyrics remain circulating love, whether it be not needing another person for it (‘Where To Start’), wanting someone to come back to him (‘Indecisive’), pushing someone away (‘Innocent’) or contentment (‘Orange Skies’). There’s a relaxed vibe throughout, with the signature guitar sound coupling smoothly as ever with Faulkner’s sultry tones. There are definite emotional timbres to each track that help the separation, something that many artists struggle with, but has been well achieved here. At 13 tracks (with this expanded to 17 on the deluxe edition), this album may be slightly longer than it needs to be, but when taken on their own each track can stand (some a little shakier than others) their ground. It can be a long listen from head to tail, but dipped in and out of, it can provide a bit of a change to anyone’s iPod shuffle playlists. If anything, it’s actually the second disc provided in the deluxe edition that contains some stronger tracks than those that made it to the standard release. This perhaps goes to show that when slimmed down to a diet version, Faulkner can be more effective than the full fat meal.
Although this album may wash over some, that could be exactly what others want. It makes for pleasant listening, with nothing daring but nothing truly lost. It’s not fresh enough to convert some fans from the already decided, but will certainly keep the ones already listening. And by the signs of the many festival appearances and now the announced 2014 tour, Faulkner surely has kept that strong following he obtained from the likes of Hand Built by Robots all the way through his now six-year professional career. It may not be as spotlighted as some other acoustic musicians (Ben Howard and the likes), but one cannot scoff at the respectable journey this surprising artist has embarked upon and continues to this day.