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EP reviews – North Sea Radio Orchestra: ‘North Sea Radio Orchestra’ demo EP (“the bluffness and friendly beauty of English music – all clotted cream and cider”)

5 Dec

North Sea Radio Orchestra: 'North Sea Radio Orchestra' demo EP

North Sea Radio Orchestra: ‘North Sea Radio Orchestra’ demo EP

Though it isn’t a patch on their ornately gilded live performances, there’s still much on the North Sea Radio Orchestra’s debut recording to give you an idea of their fledgling fragility and freshness.

Making strikingly pretty voyages into English chamber music, the NSRO are a vehicle for the Frank-Zappa-meets-Benjamin-Britten compositions of the former Shrubbies/Lake Of Puppies guitarist Craig Fortnam. They feature a cross section of classical musicians and serious moonlighters from latter-day London art-rock bands like Cardiacs and Stars In Battledress; and they mingle a palpable innocence of intent with a taste for engagingly convoluted melodic decoration. All this plus eminent Victorian poetry too. At this rate, Craig will wake up one day to find out that the National Trust has staked him out.

He could use some backup, to tell the truth. This time, budget constraints mean that the NSRO’s flexible little company of clarinets, piano, violin, organ, cello and harmonium (plus Craig’s own nylon-strung electric guitar) gets squeezed into a recording vessel too small to give them justice. It’s a measure of the music’s innate charm that it transcends these cramped conditions, aided in part by the loving assistance of head Cardiac Tim Smith at the console.

Music For Two Clarinets And Piano, in particular, strides out in delicious pulsating ripples as it evolves from a folky plainness to an increasingly brinksman-like disconnection. The clarinets hang off the frame of the music like stunt-riders, chuckling and babbling cheerfully at each other, held up by bubbling piano. The keyboard trio of Nest Of Tables also overcomes the plinking tones of the necessarily-synthesized vibraphone and harp to embark on a long, waltzing journey over a stack of tricky chords: leaning on the piano, the benevolent spectres of Tim Smith and Kerry Minnear nod approval in the background like a pair of proud godfathers. Organ Miniature No. 1 (written and delivered by Stars In Battledress’ James Larcombe) manages to find a convincing meeting point for relaxed Messiaen, strict chapel and the better-groomed end of Zappa.

For many it’ll be the three Alfred Lord Tennyson settings which encapsulate the heart of the North Sea Radio Orchestra’s appeal. Featuring the soprano vocals of Sharron Saddington (Craig’s longtime musical and romantic partner), they’re as tart and sweet as freshly pressed apple juice. Somehow they manage to dress the poems up in artful, beautifully-arranged chamber flounces and frills without swamping them in too much chintz. It’s a fine line, which the NSRO tread by matching Tennyson’s blend of mellifluous personal introspection and cosmological scenery with similarly perfumed and illuminated music. Soft but increasingly detailed puffs of chamber organ gently rock Sharron’s summertime lament on The Lintwhite, from where it’s cradled in its bed of harmonium. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Craig chooses to orchestrate The Flower (a fable of beauty, nurture and prejudice which conceals a sharp judgmental barb) with a muted brass arrangement reminiscent of another sharp musical fabulist, Kurt Weill.

The crowning glory is Move Eastward Happy Earth, where Sharron sings a hymnal wedding waltz over joyfully welling piano. Refusing to sing in either classical bel canto or pure pop, Sharron comes up with her own tones in a full sweep of approaches between urchin, candyfloss and diva: here, she carols in a kind of beautifully-mannered choirboy ecstasy. She’s backed up by an exuberant miniature chamber choir who sweep between yo-ho-ho-ing madrigal accompaniment and full-throated burst festive celebration via a set of boldly harmonised canons. It’s a little trek through the bluffness and friendly beauty of English music – all clotted cream and cider.

Perhaps that last idea is as fancifully romantic of me as is Tennyson’s own image of the spinning planet, racing him on towards his marriage day. Or perhaps underneath it all I’m being as phoney as John Major, last decade, waxing corny about a vintage Albion of cycling spinsters and cricket whites on the village green. Dreams of English innocence and cleanliness can end up trailing their roots through some pretty murky places unless you’re careful. Nonetheless, for three-and-a-half minutes North Sea Radio Orchestra could restore your faith in its well-meaningness – all without a trace of embarrassment, or recourse to snobbery. They earn their right to their genuine dreamy innocence, and (for all of their blatant nostalgia) to their sincerity too.

Shoebox recording or not, here’s a little piece of wood-panelled chamber magic for you.

North Sea Radio Orchestra: ‘North Sea Radio Orchestra’ demo EP
North Sea Radio Orchestra (no catalogue number or barcode)
CD-only EP
Released: late November 2002

Buy it from:
(Updated, 2016) Best obtained second-hand – although it’s as rare as hen’s teeth.

North Sea Radio Orchestra online:
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EP reviews – Magnilda: ‘Clocks Are Like People’ demo EP (“slightly more mad cow-ards than Noel Cowards”)

20 Aug

Magnilda: 'Clocks Are Like People' EP

Magnilda: ‘Clocks Are Like People’ EP

Sing ho! for British beef!

This pops into my head because (a) Magnilda are so proudly chunky, beefy and muscular, especially Connon MacRae’s assured and dextrous lead guitar; and because (b) they’re ever-so-slightly deranged, weaving together pop that merges the wistful and the sly, the romantic and the easily distracted via a series of songs which build up like houses of cards, complex and always teetering on the edge of a tumble. Which leads us to (c) – the fact that their nutty drawing-room demeanour warrants a suitably Olde English exclamation. As with The Divine Comedy, these are songs best listened to while wearing a monocle and attempting to playfully clobber someone with a croquet mallet. In the library. With Miss Scarlet to hold your gloves for you.

Magnilda’s music has a particularly British ancestry. A strong flavour of XTC’s mischievous kaleidoscopic power-pop. Some of Blur’s Britpop-era mix of cheeriness over melancholy. More than a smidgin of Cardiacs’ preoccupation with Victorian and Edwardian imagery, plus their taste for an itchy riff. A love of metaphysical metaphors. And, perhaps somewhere, a bit of Freddie Mercury’s taste for cabaret pop? Or perhaps not: although Richard Larcombe’s amused, mellow drawl certainly suggests smoking jackets, cigarette holders and launching shafts of wit like paper darts across panelled rooms. But this is getting far too Merchant Ivory. Time to stop and take a look at the three songs ‘Clocks Are Like People’ offers us.

There’s She’s The Queen. A love song that’s Squeeze through finishing school, constantly undermining itself with sly bathos: rocketing guitars, handclaps, and a Poet Laureate lyrical approach that’s more ‘Blackadder II’ than Clapham bedsit. “And so, my Camden monarch, my defender / in true ultramarine. / Your manner and your aromatic splendour / live in me now, my Queen.” More and more courtly compliments slip over the top. It’s like being assaulted by garlands. Yet with all the playfulness there’s a pointed seducer’s agenda, however politely turned. “Your Highness, I stand humbled at your beauty. / Admit me, if you please.”

But at the other end of the flirtation you’ll find Loving The Way, in which Magnilda’s cleverness crumbles before their genuine pangs of heartache. However sophisticated Larcombe’s narrator is (“I’m posh, discreet, / I hate to compete. / Such stuff offends me greatly”), he’s still snagged on love’s rich, hard-to-swallow leftovers. And he spends the whole song trying to come to terms with that, without success. “To kiss her neck, her hands, / and stand where she stands: / I can’t see how it’s stealing…” Smart enough to be wise to himself – “Although the passion was strong, there, / I didn’t belong there,” – he’s only smart enough to be wise after the event, and is only capable now that it’s impossible to be so. “I’d have to die to forget her: I know when I met her / I was much too young, and I wasted her. / And now I can’t stop, can’t stop loving the way we were…” It dawdles reluctantly along, with a sour burr to MacRae’s guitars; hoping to delay the imploding, anticlimactic inevitable two years too late. The eccentric, well-dressed smoothie’s already showing crumples and the odd tearstain.

Somewhere in between, What’ll We Do In The Winter? fidgets with anticipation, halfway through the affair and already dreading the challenges to come. “Late September / finds me living with a reason. / But tell me, / will your eyes not be my guide / as we move into another season?” Panicky choruses struggle with angular guitars and paranoia over the fact that even nature seems to be dropping heavy hints that it’s all over: “Now I’m curtain-drawing early, / the light is fading fast, / my spirit fading too / The lamps have started burning / – they’re not the only ones. / I can’t live without you.” By the end it’s become the John Donne hit parade; metaphysics, quaint metaphors and all, as they carol “Oh, leaves are falling.. / the ladybird to her grave crawling. / Oh, tell me what’ll we do in the winter?”

Magnilda are dark horses: slightly more mad cow-ards than Noel Cowards, but only slightly. However much Richard Larcombe delivers his elegant lyrics off a frayed cuff with an arch wink, there’s something compulsively wrong here, something tragically composed and brittle in Magnilda’s poise. Like the guy with immaculate clothes and quips, living out of the unloved flat filled with dust and old tins. Why does Larcombe reckon clocks are like people? Too much studied marking of time, without ever being able to claim it, to live it?

For all the easy jokes, the recent history of British beef has been a tragedy inextricably mingled with pungent, helpless farce. Magnilda – rolling their eyes with exaggerated abandon – would probably appreciate that better than most.

Magnilda: ‘Clocks Are Like People’
Magnilda (no catalogue number or barcode)
Cassette-only demo EP
Released: summer 1998

Magnilda online:
(2018 update – there never was a Magnilda web presence, but visit the following links for ongoing Richard Larcombe projects)

Lost Crowns online:
Facebook Bandcamp

Stars In Battledress online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp LastFM

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