How often is it that a backing band strikes out on their own? Well, it’s more common than you might think, actually, though unless you’re old enough to remember The Shadows both with and without Cliff Richard (in which case, how are the grandkids?), enormously pertinent examples can be a bit scarce. In the case of The Sleeping Souls, they’re something of the Funky Bunch to Frank Turner’s Marky Mark, namely in how they’re vastly eclipsed by the individualistic star power of their frontman. Not a comparison to hang your hat on exactly—the E Street Band might be a more fitting (and flattering) likeness—but when the albums sporting Turner’s name alone give him the lion’s share of credit, it might not be totally invalid.
At the same time though, they aren’t completely without their flowers. You’ll rarely see a live show anymore that isn’t attributed to ‘Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls’, itself implying a stable team of players instead of a rotating cast here for some out-of-studio walkies. They can convincingly pose as an ‘actual’ band, particularly with the return of ex-Soul Cahir O’Doherty to front and lend some gas from a number of his own projects, notably the tragically underrated Fighting With Wire. The result is very much in the wheelhouse of everyone involved, although it’s rare that the rollicking, windswept Xtra Mile style of indie and alt-punk disappoints all that much.
The difference is how The Sleeping Souls have been among the forefront of the movement for so long, that their footwork is just a tad fancier than some others. Their wealth of abilities and the key refinements made within them can be felt significantly, spanning straight-up punk and post-punk to softer alt-rock and the folk elements that have always stood at the core of this scene. Primed to tie it together is O’Doherty’s vocal performance, a fittingly rough, real presence that still packs in suitable variety. There’s a curled sneer that defines more rough-and-tumble punk moments like Caught Up In The Scrape and Rivals, imbued with just as much gravity as Steal Some Time and Liar Lover’s more open exhales.
So far, so indicative of The Sleeping Souls’ up to now, but Just Before The World Starts Burning doesn’t feel as though it needs to go beyond that. On top of the central concept of its existence already putting feelers out there, the bar set up is an expectedly high one. The road miles ultimately add up, and topped off with experience in multiple fields of music, you’ve got an album the feels very complete in what it offers. The cleaner production does feel like a necessity for that, as a means to maintain both the big road-warrior starch and the introspection that allows for something more lavish overall. You feel it on the pianos and plucked strings that coat Remember Boann in its glittery texture, or the notable slow-burns of Steal Some Time and Ceremony, rooted in folk balladry without falling to a lack of dynamism.
It’s an incredibly well put-together body of work, noteworthy in how few real dips it produces. You’d struggle to isolate any real lowlights on the basis of how thorough The Sleeping Souls are at wringing out their potential. Even though it’s more solid that outright great, the robust nature of it all elevates it significantly; there’s a lot of purpose and distinct effort put into this, which a side-project might not normally hinge on. And yes, the pejorative connotations with that term aren’t lost, especially on what does feel like a lower-stakes album overall. There’s a patchwork feel that kind of betrays that, sonically, thematically, and in the fact that much of the album was crafted piecemeal over a three-year period. Still, that’s no crushing blow; not at all, in fact. The abundance of good ideas and sounds executed with real gumption speak for themselves ultimately, as The Sleeping Souls prove an extremely competent unit in their own right. Experience can indeed add up to a lot, as shown on an album that rockets them out of the background of their frontman, and at its best, might even put them on par.
For fans of: Frank Turner, Crazy Arm, Elliott Smith
‘Just Before The World Starts Burning’ by The Sleeping Souls is released on 24th November on Xtra Mile Recordings.
Words by Luke Nuttall