February 1997 – album reviews – Cranes’ ‘Population 4’ (“lacking in their usual ambition to take flight”)

3 Feb
Cranes: 'Population 4'

Cranes: ‘Population 4’

Coming out of the closet as a Cranes fan has been a dangerous thing to do, throughout their career. Unadventurous (and sometimes frankly spiteful) reviews have continually harped on that word ‑ “Goth” ‑ and Alison Shaw’s distinctive vocal style. Cranes first emerged against the hideous trend that was “indie‑dance” or “baggy”, and have remained resolutely out of step with the musical climate, with a small coterie of the artier music journos and a band of devoted fans to sing their praises.

The cover of Cranes’ last album proper, ‘Loved’, showed Degas’ ‘Blue Dancers’, and the album echoed those dusky blue hues and nineteenth‑century European Romantic feel. The music came swathed in atmosphere, but with each track having its own style and exploring a different, often new, facet of Cranes’ collective persona. Then the experimental nature of the ‘Orestes Et Electre’ project ‑ sandy, static theatre music ‑ hinted (semi‑successfully) at startling new directions. So here I am, fully prepared to herald the genius of Cranes… and they present a back‑to‑basics band sound chained to, of all things, an American college rock influence. Why?

Why does Fourteen ‑ for all of its stop‑start dynamics and distorted guitars ‑ sound like Veruca Salt?! The sophistication of the lyric is such that Alison Shaw appears to be singing “yeah” throughout most of the track. Oh. Breeze features bright summery chords all around, lyrics about sitting on golden beaches with views of the sun, sea and shore. The musical dynamics ‑ the few there are ‑ show no sense of originality or of Cranes’ usually meticulous, almost classical arrangements. It sounds like Belly. Anyone can “do” that: few people can “do” Cranes. Can’t Get Free is similar, complete with sweet “la la la” backing vocals, and a lyrically excruciating chorus that no doubt imagines it is being deeply profound about an emotional situation: “how can it be? / Why can’t I see? Just can’t get free / It just can’t be.” I nearly swallowed my tongue.

But look, if this new “direction” is to persist, then Cranes should concentrate on the likes of Sweet Unknown, which comes across like Mazzy Star stripped of the Velvets’ langour and opiate haze. It feelingly documents the end of a relationship: “for a while our world seemed right… / My whole world has gone away…” Or there’s Angel Bell, a very restrained attempt at a deep South/Birthday Party dynamic song in an ice‑cool Cranes style, with a primal rhythm being ripped out of an unidentified instrument. Possibly a cello being mutilated in the name of Gothic atmosphere. Saint Nick (Cave, that is) would be pleased.

And, thankfully, there are moments when Cranes reveal a taste of the album they could have made ‑ a development of their music but still recognisably, uniquely, Cranes. The album opens (lulling one into a false sense of security, it has to be said) with Tangled Up ‑ one of those beguiling, metronomic laments with sparsely clipped acoustic guitar and Alison’s wispy, vulnerable child vocals echoing in the night (you have my permission to groan at that unoriginal description of her voice). Oh sure, Cranes could probably do this sort of thing in their sleep, but it’s inimitable; one of the eeriest and most affecting sounds around.

Stalk is also a standout track. A chilling, menacing tale of someone obsessively watching, watching, watching ‑ “the bars at your window / are killing tomorrow for me” ‑ set to a claustrophobic soundtrack of rumbling drums and stroked acoustic guitar. The problem comes in the vocals ‑ the track’s sung by Jim Shaw, normally the skilled arranger of the band’s musical atmospheres. While he does sound low and menacing, and you can feel his breath behind you, he also has no singing voice whatsoever, frankly. Shame.

Another relative high point is Brazil. Very like Jewel (their, um, “hit single” from the ‘Forever’ album) in its dry upfront sound, with the guitars providing a slightly Spanish acoustic feel. The sound is deepened by, on this occasion, by the very un‑Cranes‑like bright electric piano which, surprisingly, works beautifully in these surroundings.

But still there is that feeling of an incomplete Cranes, lacking in their usual ambition to take flight. To Be, the final song, exemplifies the problem. A slow mini‑epic of the sort that Cranes usually specialise in to such mesmeric effect, drowned in harmonies, atmospheres and intricate classical structures, is rendered less powerful by its resolutely “live band” feel.

‘Population 4’, then, ends with a song that barely leaves terra firma, when it could have the ability to soar. Cranes are still a very special group, not worthy of their bad press. It’s just that, for whatever musical or personal reasons, they have held themselves back this time.

Cranes: it’s a vision thing. We want the vision back.

(review by Vaughan Simons)

Cranes: ‘Population 4’
Dedicated Records, DED CD 026 (743214315224)
CD/cassette album
Released: 11th February 1997

Get it from:
(2018 update) best obtained second-hand.

Cranes online:
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