To begin with, this didn't look particularly promising, an unknown band, name not especially enticing, the label (One Little Indian) sometimes a bit hit-and-miss, sleeve no big deal, website cheap-and-cheerful (even if its baseline --- "Schopenhauer's favourite band" --- is pretty funny). What's more, the record runs close to sixty-eight minutes, in two 'acts' ("Love Lust" and "Love Lost") and for a first album that really is a bit long. But what's that you're saying? It's already their fourth? OK, it's still too long, who the hell's going to spare over an hour to listen to a record!

Without much enthusiasm I put the CD into the machine: the first song's OK, even if its melancholy maybe tries a little too hard to grab the listener right from the start. The second track, less in-your-face, is better. The third, all celestial strings, is downright magnificent. And it carries on that way, all the way to the end, without letting up, a little miracle.

Revered by English critics, Songdog is a trio comprising Lyndon Morgans (vocals, acoustic guitar) and two instrumentalists, Karl Woodward and Dave Paterson. Hailing from Blackwood in Wales, home of the Manic Street Preachers, Morgans (a former playwright) and Woodward can't be all that young as they played in a new-wave band in the 80s that toured opening for --- Aha! A half-dozen musicians and arrangers help out here but, at bottom, "A Wretched Sinner's Song" sounds more like a solo album, the singer having written the eighteen songs, his fellow band-members colouring them with lovely touches of banjo, mandolin, accordion, French horn, violin and cello.

This is a truly precious record in every sense of the word, which places it in a very English tradition, that of Bowie (for its mannerisms that yet never grate), Band of Holy Joy (for its storytelling and the arrangements that lie at some distance from standard rock), Day One (for the vocals, which sometimes sound like Phelim Byrne), Lloyd Cole & The Commotions (for the name-dropping and the literary references) or Tindersticks (for the exaggerated romanticism). Morgans reveals himself to be a remarkable poet-of-the-everyday, reciting densely- detailed tales of love (that usually end badly), of sex and of drunkenness, finally ending up in Paris ("Montparnasse"), which he peppers with cliches all the better to make it cough up its ill-gotten gains.

The songs may call to mind the Scott Walker of "Till The Band Comes In", but the despair here is less staged, more moving, often softened by humour. Certainly, the succession of slow tempos and the basically acoustic tonal-range risks inducing a slight feeling of monotony after an hour or so and perhaps the album would be enjoyed more by picking a song here, a song there, like a box of chocolates. Either way, it's a beautiful find, a timeless record, beyond fashion, one to go back to again and again, and always with the same delight.

Vincent Arquillière