There’s the shadow of a melody in the house, floating in the dusty air. It’s coming from just around the corner, or maybe from up by the crumbling moulding.
Preludes is Matt Gasda (the sotto-voce poet who did most of the singing and keyboards in the ghostly riverbank psychedelics Bears in America) and his sister Emily. The Bears were a group so reticent and self-involved that listening to them was like spying on a set of old footprints, long-abandoned and filling with water. Some Preludes songs began life as Bears pieces before falling into this new form and flavour, so you can expect something of a family resemblance. Yet in their hypnotic and looping way, with their camp-fire canons and travelling-man guitars, Bears in America fitted (just) into the Americana bracket. In contrast, Preludes looks wistfully eastward, back towards Europe.
More specifically, Preludes capture a lost and fading atmosphere of East Coast grandeur: one which jealously guards its Old World connections, its cultural loftiness, its yellowing old money in a deadened and dreamy grip. While Matt may have relocated to New York City and settled in Brooklyn, Preludes seems to have set its heart further uptown. These songs emerge like a sigh haunting a shabby brownstone mansion on the Upper East Side, clinging to the scuffed books in its neglected library, or fluttering with a swirl of yellow leaves in its deep walled garden. It’s not that these are wordy songs of privilege; instead, they’re leisurely blurs of decaying luxury, drunk on elevated sensation and cut right back to free-drifting images of moons, flowers, loss and water, their stories dissolved. An encroaching darkness hovers around them, like time and chemistry eroding sepia photographs. At the same time, there’s a rapturous quality to the music: the thrill of the last gasp, the final pirouette of memory.
‘The Moth’ EP, and its title track in particular, set up the Preludes recipe from the start – pianos (drowned in a flat and musty reverb), blurry-edged keyboard layers (in this case, a wavering swoon of fake strings), and a faint and faded rag of vocal yearning after something it can’t quite describe, catching on whatever surrounds the moment. There’s a touch of Goth in the mix, and more than a suspicion of Nico or Anthony Hegarty; but the obliqueness and the gauzy obscurity are all Matt’s. Moonstruck, he murmurs soft, semi-operatic vocals in the backgrounds, muttering about cicadas and strange, longing transformations. Halfway along, a cheap drum machine begins to tap out a stately dance rhythm and Matt steps up to a new level of obscure, gently-impassioned reverie. (“And we’ll walk along the opening geraniums… /The light of the moon. / Open your milk-white eyes… We will never grow so old.”) It doesn’t mean so much when you pin it down. Just a handful of fleeting images, lighter than anything. Open your hand and let it drift on this sigh of breath, however, and it flushes gently with life.
It’s Emily Gasda who sings the out-of-focus waltz of The Moon And The Bonfires – sings in a small and distracted way over a softened skirl of goth keyboards; a spiralling distant dream of a barrel organ melody. Here’s more obscurity (nightswimming and natural lights; the sense of a particular, autumnal time of year). Here’s more plucking at floating, flowery images (“The violets of memory are growing in the water… / It’s like a debt you share…”) She sounds like a more peaceful version of Cranes’ Alison Shaw. The Goth tambourine and the bass drum thud behind her sound like a lull in a noisy evening. Perhaps these songs are some kind of refuge.
As goosefeather-soft as the rest, the last song – Nightlight Child – begins as a ghostly lullaby. A muffled drum and music box playout becomes a throb while Matt and Emily sing together, and for a while they’re Victorian in their magic and ruffles, their willingness to slip away into dream logic and wordplay and into ornamental fantasy. “Like water drawn from the well – moon drawn like a fish. / Nightlight child, it’s all right. / Nightlight child come to life / and from the shell alight. /A starry, starry night.” Gradually the lullaby play fades seamlessly into surreal and transforming fable: images turn macabre (moth eyes, floods rising from the throat to drown) and innocence and horror overlap. Unwinding ourselves from this particular gauze is less easy.Five-and-a-half months later (swimming back into view with a second EP, ‘The Swan’) Preludes are just as enclosed and enrapt in their consumptive old-world decay. “Snow falls in Central Park, / and for a day your fever drops,” sings Emily on a song which also coos “love is so cold” and reminisces – with a quiet, absorbed bliss – about kissing frozen hands. There’s never a suggestion that there’s any danger involved here, or a direct flicker of death. That particular disquiet just seeps into the gap that’s left for it.
In general the themes of sleep, death, illness and wasting-dream simply blush gently through the EP’s songs, each of them thinning the walls between experiences. The strangest of these is the title track, wrought with a chilly expressionism and drifting symbols. “I love the sorrow of your voice / and the wreckage of the old days” Matt muses, beneath a cloudy Blue Nile synth pad (a mirage of traffic in the evening sky) and a funerary piano line (a shard of dusty porcelain from a lost urn). Death and revival blur together (“you’re enclosed in the petals / made of snow, / born up into the clouds like ash”) in a way that’s as much phoenix as swan. “I’ll wait by the river / for the ice to tear itself up,” promises Matt, as the ritual works its way to conclusion. “Your blood will germinate the spring.” Over a minute of silence at the end of the song eases the point home.
On Sleepy Eye’d (backed by an enthusiastic music-box twinkle and lambent synth), Emily enjoys a much more innocent dream – “We’ll tear up the feathers of the stars / and make our bedding on the moon… / Take my hand, we’ll go skating on the glass, / catch fireflies with our hands.” For a while, Preludes sound as if they’ve slipped into ‘Little Nemo in Slumberland‘ and the air of rapt surrender lightens a little.
It’s only on The Well that brother and sister find out what happens when they write and sing together. Here, Emily sounds eerily like Mama Cass (moving almost imperceptibly from her previous ghostly solipsism to a kind of centred passion) while Matt murmurs an ashy, barely-there harmony. Somewhere in there is an ancient Scottish air, missing its drone but making do with a broken-limbed piano line and rising string-synth bleeds. “And the love you held in your hands like a bird / is waking up again.” sings Emily, cupping revival in her voice. “I will go down to the well / draw up water in my hands. / Tell all, all the dead / the world is now beautiful – / stop the clocks and open the windows. / We can’t understand.”
By the end of the song, it seems as if those strange arrested Preludes atmospheres might finally be breaking down, offering release. “Now I feel time as it flows / like the melting snow.” sings Emily. Somewhere out of earshot a gate is opening, a clock starting, a breath deepening.
Preludes: ‘The Moth’ & ‘The Swan’
Released: 21st August 2011 (‘The Moth’) & 8th February 2012 (‘The Swan’)