Life in Levitation appears to have been pretty intense. It wasn’t just the careening violence of that band’s supercharged stew of indie-metal and psychedelia (which usually brought to mind eerie and sickly dawn comedowns, or bloated nebulae savaging each other in a chilly night-sky) but the personal cost as well. Five equally creative underground rock musicians – each with hungry histories behind them – yoked together into a single band and choosing an open-ended approach, then unexpectedly exploding into semi-celebrity across the British indie-rock circuit.
Excesses of talent and volatility (and too much “too much” in general) inspired Levitation, but also wore it down. In particular, the sudden and very public departure of the band’s doggedly wayward frontman Terry Bickers in summer ’93 seemed acrimonious enough to raise blisters. Perhaps this is why whenever Levitation’s keyboard player Bob White stepped away from the band for a breather of his own, the music that he produced had such pollen-soaked brightness to it. Compared to Levitation’s soaring, guttering galactic frenzies, The Milk & Honey Band feels more like waking up in a warm barn in the woozy heat of an August afternoon, knowing that there’s just enough of the summer left for you to relax into.
Collected together as a full album, these songs float together gracefully and lazily. Despite the communal, homespun suggestions of the name, Bob is on his own here – producing and playing absolutely everything from the shakers to the luscious layered guitars. He seems more than happy to be carrying all the weight. Of course, he’s made it easier for himself by making Milk & Honey Band music so softly buoyant: an easygoing psychedelia with a nostalgic undertow. ‘Round The Sun’ is pervaded by a sunny West Coast feel, with banks of multi-tracked Bobs murmuring in cloudy harmonies.
There’s an illuminated sting to Not Heaven’s punchy rhythm, but listen to that glorious coda as the guitars slide deliciously over each other – a sensual Moebius strip of sound. A trio of pastoral guitars in Raining, set against a gentle downpour, recall Peter Green. Mandolins ring tenderly on Out Of Nowhere. The slow, sleepy, rumple of the title track builds on rich and majestic layers of spliffed-up guitars and harmonium; Bob lovingly croons “feels like life has put the world in your arms” amidst touches of melodica and tingling vibraphone. Even a digression into pelting distorted rock-out for Another Perfect Day (which sounds like an agreeably tranquillized Bob Mould) is haloed with positivity.
West Coast syrup and sunshine aside, the Milk & Honey Band is also as English as chips in newspaper. Often it could be a never-was memory of imaginary childhood holidays. Something remembered by a happier Syd Barrett, perhaps – saved from drowning, and lost in a contented swirl of dope smoke as he hangs out with an equally relaxed Andy Partridge.
Two rogue Milk & Honey Band instrumentals also anchor themselves to an endearing shabby gentility, like fading Edwardian seaside pavilions going quietly to seed in the dying sunlight. The first of these, Tea (sweetened with organ, glockenspiel and fake clarinet), summons up sepia memories of elderly swinging dance-bands. The snatch of elegant minimalism on Pier View (shifting interlocking waltzes of piano and synth oboe) isn’t a million miles away from the more mannered moments of Penguin Café Orchestra’s chamber-music joys.
Still… beyond the simple humming pleasures, there’s a subtle tinge of melancholy. It’s intangible, like a barely-there sense of the mistakes you’ve not yet realised that you’ve made. On Puerto, hazy recollections from family holidays – train journeys, shapes made by a father’s hands – are just flakes of memory, snapshots of times that are gone. Only the cavernous darkness of Light – slow drums booming, guitars like giant creaking girders; a smudgy, apprehensive fog of vocals – points back towards Levitation’s broiling stress.
Yet there are hints that the warmth in which The Milk & Honey Band sits is a resting place which must be eventually left behind; or a long-ago photograph in which the colours will eventually turn wan and wear away. Listening past the folky, bluesy cats-cradle of clean-picked guitars (recalling the Stones in wasted lament on Wild Horses) you’ll hear Bob singing softly about blood on his hands that won’t wash away. Elsewhere, he gently pleads “Take a lot of stupid noise / and try to understand the words that I say.”
It’s as if he’s aware that the time available for understanding is short: circumscribed by circumstance, and with far too much human frailty getting in its way. Presumably, fraught energies will be beckoning again sometime soon. In the meantime this album is here, as floaty and comforting as a hammock-ride – and as vulnerable.
The Milk & Honey Band: ‘Round the Sun’
Rough Trade Records, R3572 (5022781203574)
Released: 29th September 1994
Buy it from:
Download from Burning Shed; CD is long-deleted and best looked for second-hand.