Album reviews – The Bathers: ‘Kelvingrove Baby’ (“full of Celtic soul histrionics, surging choruses and delicate instrumental interludes”)

13 Feb

The Bathers: 'Kelvingrove Baby'

The Bathers: ‘Kelvingrove Baby’

Oh, but I do worry about Chris Thomson.

Chris Thomson is The Bathers. He’s been ploughing his lonely furrow for ten years, since the break up of the seminal Glasgow group Friends Again (who also featured James Grant of Love And Money ‑ no, me neither…). This is The Bathers’ fifth album ‑ it will doubtless be received with the same resounding silence as all the others, save for the tiny devoted following who will think manna has descended from heaven. So why was I worried? Well, the sleeve to the last album, ‘Sunpowder’, contained the desperately insecure messages “Support the Arts ‑ Hug A Musician” and “The Dream Is Over ‑ Long Live The Dream”. Sob.

Now you’ll have to take The Bathers to your hearts, surely…?


 
In truth, the first three or so tracks are a touch disconcerting by normal Bathers standards. The (frankly pretentious, but marvellous) European‑influenced titles are absent; the credits show a preponderance of Wurlitzer, Rhodes and electric pianos rather than the normally ever‑present ethereal strings and chiming classical piano lines. And while Van Morrison has often been an undoubted influence, on this album the influence is perhaps too pervasive, and it verges at times on sounding like an avant‑garde Hothouse Flowers. The trio of Girlfriend, If Love Could Last Forever and East Of East Delier ‑ whilst gloriously late‑night ‑ can make them sound like a barely‑audible, zonked‑out but musically polite cafe band. At one point, I half expected Thomson to slur: “Ladeez and gennelmen, we’re your band this evening. Gonna take a little ol’ break now. See you at the bar, which is now open.”.


 
But for East Of East Delier, the European outlook (“I dreamed she’d come from Copenhagen…”) is back, serenaded by Thomson’s 2 a.m‑feel, decidedly tipsy, highly emotional display, and the album twitches into life with No Risk No Glory. With a sparse acoustic base to the verse, and sympathetic soul‑style backing vocals (by, of all people, Del Amitri’s Justin Currie ‑ bang goes the indie cred) that echo Thomson’s lyric, the chorus rises to breast‑beating Celtic soul and a lyric full of self‑awareness ‑ “I was born to suffer.”

And after a slightly hazy start to the album, Once Upon A Time On The Rapenburg restores my faith. It’s like an old friend, and you should never change an old friend. All the signature Bathers motifs are there ‑ the classical piano, the strings, the over‑emotional vocals, the continental cool. And the lyrical concern is a familiar one about kissing a girl under starlit skies in various exotic European locations. What a guy…


 
Kelvingrove Baby itself is the album’s central epic ‑ there’s always one, full of Celtic soul histrionics, surging choruses and delicate instrumental interludes. It begins as a simple piano motif before bursting into life with haunting voices and an operatic diva weaving in and out of Thomson’s lyrics ‑ which could be corny, but instead sends a shiver down the spine. He’s expectantly waiting for a girl again, and dedicating his overflowing paean of love to her hometown. The music regularly builds, swells and bursts like a raincloud, as Thomson reaches ecstatic preacherly heights of inspiration: “when your girl looks at you, and she sighs, / when she moves beside you, you want the moment touched with magic and immortality. / You want rain, / you want soft music, / and the last words to be about love!” Pianos and drums explode. The song ends, soaked to the skin and smiling.


 
On a quieter tip, Girl From The Polders is a good example of what Thomson does so well: taking a standard, timeless melody (you know the tune already, from the first notes onwards) and drawing out of it something haunting and emotional. He seems to be waiting through the seasons, until summer, for her this time. (Hands up if you see a lyrical theme emerging…)

The one unforgivable track ‑ the first real blot on Thomson’s copy book I’ve heard in ages, is Dial. More cafe band music; too mellow, man. Lots of filmic guitar, elongated major‑7th chords, treacle‑smooth backing vocals and an irredeemably cringeworthy chorus ‑ “Caller, you’re divine.” Ugh. But Hellespont In A Storm (yes! titles! titles!) wins us back: a late‑night lament guided by an accordion, acoustic guitar and violin. Although, gorgeous as it is, Thomson’s way with a familiar melody takes a tumble in the verses, where echoes of Unchained Melody can be clearly heard. Oh, never mind…

The final track, Twelve, finds Thomson devoting himself to a girl in the most poetic and tangible of ways; “I’ll love you ’til the roses lose their perfume… / until the poets run out of rhymes… / ’til the twelfth of never. / And, baby, you know / that’s a long, long time…” Then that “Bathers moment” appears ‑ distant voices appear and disappear through snatches of ghostly telephone conversations, string passages shoot up at the back of the recording like incense rushing up the dome of St Peter’s. The callers hang up.


 
Chris Thomson will be waiting for you, bottle of red wine in hand in the late‑night rain, under the street lamp’s orange glow. He’ll be singing quietly to himself.

Goodbye, Chris. See you at the same place next time.

(review by Vaughan Simons)

The Bathers: ‘Kelvingrove Baby’
Marina Records, MA 22/MACD 4468‑2 (4 015698 446821)
CD-only album
Released: 10th February 1997

Get it from:
(2018 update) the original Marina pressing of this album has long since sold out, so is best obtained second-hand. The 2000 reissue on Wrasse Records is still available.

The Bathers online:
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