The Lion and the Wolf - Symptoms (Cover Artwork)

The Lion and the Wolf

Symptoms (2014)

Courage and Stone Records

Hitting play on Symptoms for the first time could be deceiving to a newcomer -- the sub-two minute opener, “Bandages,” is a cheery little folk pop hit at odds with any kind of punk sensibility. But Tom George, a.k.a. The Lion and the Wolf, is as D.I.Y. as they come -- a one man touring machine who'll tack his folk punk from the sadder end of the spectrum on to any bill that'll take it, hundreds of times a year if possible, just for the privilege of getting to reach out and make new friends off the back of songs written in the bedroom and worn out on the road.

Even those who know him well might be hard pushed to recognise him here though, the summery blast contrasting his usual musical aesthetic, if not his personal one. Four or five years in and his discography to date has definitely been more of a gathering of odds and ends than anything else, so although many people have become familiar with George's songs as he's passed through every town that'll offer him a stage and a floor, he's not really had the chance to show off what he actually sounds like once he's spent a bit of time in the studio.

And it's because that studio sound seems, from the opening gambit, so at odds with George's live sound that old friends may find it jarring and newcomers may be put off by not receiving what was promised. But hang on, everyone -- it gets sad pretty quickly.

Despite the occasional rousing singalong and bouncy chorus that crop up to keep Symptoms going, it is, for the most part, a proper downer. The album cover shot of a bike stashed in a hallway serves to confirm the album's introspective, stay indoors, winter feel. Folk punk is so regularly made for the campfire in summer, and the genre's songwriters that stay home generally tend to do it because they hate the people outside rather than the weather. Symptoms manages to strike that tone of cosy isolation without fully giving in to Bon Iver-style cabin fever.

The most apt comparisons are probably Bright Eyes in the biggest, loudest moments, but mostly Sam Russo, because he's a man from England playing folk music with punk associations, and more than just a little bit of Elliott Smith. And while Smith comparisons for writers of predominately sad acoustic guitar-based music often seem like the kind of lazy criticism that sees any pop-punk band with a female singer inevitably get compared to Paramore at some point, George is legitimately deserving of it. His hushed voice evokes a similar feeling to Smith's, something that isn't as easy to accomplish as many seem to think when they try and pull it off. The true hopelessness of a song like the organ-tinged “Ghosts On Trinity,” or the less-draining-but-still-draining melancholy that pervades the rest of the record is hard to fake -- this is the real thing.

Songs of hometowns, funerals, heartbreaks and friends fill the (probably long overdue) debut full-length from The Lion and the Wolf and, unlike many songs with such personal themes and esoteric references, it's hard to feel like an outsider when listening. George is already an old friend to everyone he meets, on tour and, now, finally, on record. He's not a gamechanger for the genre -- he lacks Russo's ability to pick the tragic beauty out of a bad situation, or Sean Bonnette's wit -- but, at the coldest time of the year, he's a comforting friend when you might need him most.