June 1996 – album reviews – Cradle’s ‘Baba Yaga’ (“infinite shades of smoke rather than supernovae”)

26 Jun

Cradle: 'Baba Yaga'

Cradle: ‘Baba Yaga’

Three years ago, towards the end of an especially fraught Levitation concert, singer/guitarist Terry Bickers finally gave vent to his dissatisfaction, announcing to an astonished audience “oh dear, we’ve really lost it, haven’t we?” He bailed out of the band immediately afterwards, effectively scuppering two years of new progressive explorations, and disappeared to God knows where. Some said hermitages, some said a reclusive existence in Brighton. Rumours began to circulate about name changes, new ways of approaching music, and finally a new band called Cradle, which surfaced with an obscure one-off single called Earth Belly, played with Canterbury-techno act Ultramarine and disappeared again before we’d had time to blink, off to spend two years incubating and recording this debut.


 
According to Bickers, Cradle is not so much a band as a way of doing things, a loose musical collective of shifting personnel which changes depending on what the music needs. Perhaps this is just his way of saying that, following the tensions of Levitation, he doesn’t want to work within a formal band structure. Although Cradle does centre around Bickers – he’s the only person who plays throughout – you can never quite pin him down as the leader of the other five contributors, the most prominent of whom is singer Caroline Tree. It helps that while most of the music retains a Bickers flavour, it’s entirely the same as before. Compared to the eerie guitar attack of his days in The House of Love, or the head-expanding maximal space-prog of Levitation, Cradle is a definite retreat – music coming from a distant dusk-lit field or a big shadowy attic. There’s still some of the same eerie Bickers guitar textures, there’s still the Levitation fixation on hypnotic minimalist riff cycles and a childlike sense of wonder, but Cradle is introverted, quiet; infinite shades of smoke rather than supernovae.


 
The songs are slower, more influenced by the threads of Early and mediaeval music, perhaps; the turbulent anxiety of previous years is now leashed. It enables the beauty previously swathed in alarm to emerge. The ethereal Gifts of Unknown Things is the loveliest thing Bickers has ever done – Clannad meets ‘Ummagumma’ in a sort of Gregorian trance-rock, layers of harp-like guitars, the noise of birdsong and a distant helicopter, the swooning voices of Terry and Caroline delicately harmonising and overlapping. Baby Heart is a ravishing, rambling love ballad, relaxed to the point of disjointedness; sleepy Hammonds, piano and woozy acoustic guitars. The Clangers and the Moomins has the same slo-mo aquamarine instrumental grace as Fleetwood Mac’s Albatross or Adrian Belew‘s underwater instrumental Ballet for a Blue Whale. Consequences echoes George Harrison’s Indian-inflected mantra pop, while Immortal goes for jumpier prog rhythms, although its amoeboid atmosphere soon boils them down to a psychedelic jam with Tree hoots and mumbles over the top.


 
Although a darker sense of damage occasionally rears its head (most obviously on the spooky, funereal Home, where Bickers turns his book on the world and burrows into his own soul), for the most part ‘Baba Yaga’ is meditative, reflective and – in a deserted-city kind of a way – pastoral. A healing record, although as with all healing records it has its undercurrents of pain and wrongness; ambient-ish; sometimes lovely… not mellow.


 
Still, the album’s got its flaws, and all too often the sticking point is Caroline Tree. She rocks the Cradle boat for half of the record: where other Cradle-ers would pull together, she obstinately pulls away, and those songs with her firm stamp on them tug the group in a none-too-successful alternative direction. The clanging New Wave/psychedelic cross of Second Nature sounds like Elastica gone hippy; while In the Forest may celebrate flower-children running naked in the woods, but Caroline comes across more as Siouxsie Sioux than Sally Oldfield or Melanie. Then there’s Goodnight Eloise’s gooey fantasy of jellyflowers, trees of dreams, gingerbread men and paddling in stardust, set to a cobwebby space-blues chug. The sound of Caroline’s icy, unyielding voice declaiming childlike verses about cloud, trees, bread and peaches over Hammond organs and fizzing Bickers guitars is disorientating in the extreme – you feel as if you’re being set up for a sarcastic sucker punch which never arrives. Black Tea is no more than a slavish imitation of PJ Harvey’s granite-y swamp-blues, down to the last raddled moan.

Despite the hippy lyrics, Tree seems iron-willed and probably thinks that her wilful contrary hold on Cradle steers the project towards diversity; but instead she tends to run it aground, chasing ideas and idols without any genuine understanding of how to achieve her ideas, and scattering laboured spiritual references everywhere to no great effect. Bickers, meanwhile, seems to exude wide-eyed otherworldly mysticism as part of his everyday life. The result is an uneven and misshapen album lurching between churchy minimalist proggiedelia and whichever heroine or bit of aggressive New Agery that Tree’s decided to emulate that week. It has its brilliant moments, but this Cradle is far from balanced yet.

For now, there’s a happy ending. Chloe’s Room, the album’s final sixteen-minute epic, unifies the Tree and Bickers strand and works. Guitars, Mellotrons, organs and drums make a luminous fog around Tree’s gentle whispers – a ghostly two-chord thrum, a dream-mist of psychedelic textures, part Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun, part The End, and a fair part Lewis Carroll (since they’ve raided his ‘Hunting of the Snark’ as lyrical fuel for the journey. Space-rock me to sleep.


 
Cradle: ‘Baba Yaga’
Ultimate Records, TOPPCD 042 (5018791600564)
CD/double vinyl album
Released:
24th June 1996
Get it from: (2020 update) Best obtained second-hand.
Cradle (Terry Bickers) online:
Homepage Facebook YouTube
Additional notes: (2020 update) Cradle was a short-lived band and didn’t survive for long. Terry Bickers remains musically active with a variety of projects, most visibly a reformed House of Love, Americana band Montana Rain and an ongoing collaboration with ex-Adorable frontman Pete Fij.
 

2 Responses to “June 1996 – album reviews – Cradle’s ‘Baba Yaga’ (“infinite shades of smoke rather than supernovae”)”

  1. Andrew Blackmore August 3, 2020 at 4:49 am #

    A little hard on Caroline I think, but nothing like how vitriolic other have been. There’s a 3rd B-Side on Second Nature sung by Caroline called “Table” that I think is beautiful and the best thing Cradle did. Oddly enough I found all of my Cradle stuff as Second Hand promos…

    • Dann Chinn August 3, 2020 at 7:43 am #

      It’s all a question of how she applies herself, really – she’s lovely on Gifts of Unknown Things, but on many of the songs which she’s leading or fronting she sounds very much as if she’s in the wrong group.

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