Tag Archives: cheap drum machines

REVIEW – The Four Disorders: ‘Cat Lady/Hell And Hackney’ demo, 2014 (“both dark and breezy”)

21 May

I don’t know much about The Four Disorders, and that’s how they seem to like it. A brief heads-up email arrived about them the other day, but lyrical hints and a single downcast, distracted photo don’t tell me much more than that they’re probably based in Hackney, that they’re a boy/girl duo (Mi-Shan and Joe), and that they’re not big on eye contact.

Mi-Shan and Joe of The Four Disorders (photo © The Four Disorders)

Mi-Shan and Joe of The Four Disorders (photo © The Four Disorders)

There are just two Soundcloud demo tracks so far, both demos. Not quite a secret, not quite a single. There’s a contradictory whiff of reclusive hipster to this (not necessarily a bad thing – I dip into hipsterworld sometimes, and it’s a guilty relief to find someone there who hates self-promotion). What I can glean about The Four Disorders, therefore, comes mostly from their sound, which somehow manages to be both dark and breezy.

Rhythms are closures : minimal drum machine clacks and markers, enough to pump the songs along up-tempo but otherwise just nails holding the box together. Sidelining (or suppressing) the sparse and begrudged clusters of starved, spangly guitar, Mi-Shan offers greyed-out nighthawk pads of budget string-synth. Moods are made or broken on Joe’s upfront bass guitar, which looks and sounds almost as big as he is, whether it’s trudging down the beat with a dour plectrum-hammer or traveling on a supple, pianistic twist of growling melody. Allowing for home-studio roughness, they end up somewhere between Sisters of Mercy (circa the clenched and hooded cynic-rumble of ‘Floodland’) and the brighter, more forgiving dance-pop of Saint Etienne (sprinkling reappropriated, refiltered tints of classic pop sounds over washed-out London suburbs).

Whenever Joe opens his mouth, however, it suddenly turns a bit teenaged-Neil-Tennant. He sings with a similar small-voiced and beady tone – brittle and nasal, watchful and dry. Like Tennant, Joe also wears heartache and reflection as if they were part of the same, wrong jacket; tight and a little irksome. On Cat Lady he sighs, with a hint of exasperation, “I could love you if you drop this nonsense.” Over glum keyboard chords and a chilly, thudding bassline (and with a hint of cocaine weariness), he outlines the stagnant mind games which keep score but eventually lead to nil. “You think you know it all, you think you’ve got my life worked out, you think you see right through me, / but you don’t know me and I don’t want to show you. / You think you’ve got me in a corner, you think you’ve outmanoeuvred me – / but I show you only half the truth / and it cuts me out, it cuts me out…”

With excruciating – and accurate – teenage gawkiness, the song flickers between states and stances. It travels rapidly from poised bleakness (“you think you’re only using me to satisfy you when you need it / I wish that’s all you wanted from me, but I can feel the pain inside you”) to the unwanted sympathy, sincerity and pathos of the schoolyard underdog scratching for love. (“You’re smarter and more popular than me – / it’s true, but I just wish that you could believe it too / and put yourself at ease.”) In its dance of masks and blushes, it feels like a mash-up of Brett Easton Ellis and ‘Waterloo Road’.

That awkwardness, that inability to maintain a fixed pose, seems deliberate: a conscious, complicit songwriter’s choice. On Hell And Hackney, Joe takes on the insubstantiality and self-indulgence of his peers, but even while taking it to task with verbal barbs and jabs, he brings in the rueful tone of the implicated. “Aimlessly we drift, like a frivolous emotion, or a dream that fades into the day / Further round the bend, delirium advances; / we bite the hand that tries to save… / We’re still pretending there’s another life, / parallel and far away.” There’s more fizz to this one, too: counterpointing her blocky keyboards, Mi-Shan fires out digi-gastric hi-NRG gurgles, bell-tones and sub-bass quirks over Joe’s rolling bassline.

Joe, meanwhile, lunges into the malaise to root out the muck, distraction, and confusion. “We’re only alive when we drop out of skies, wash away the compromise, / we’ve nowhere to hide, nothing left inside, forgotten what we’re trying to find… /Sad to say, we wash away the day, / destroying our time. / Cast away, sleepless we lay, /wasting our pride.” As he breaks his own cool surface, skidding vigorously between scold and clarion call, you can almost forgive him for skidding for hideously out-of-tune; especially when he tears a window in the torpid clouds towards the end. “Yes, I know how miserable it seems, / laying blame and thinking of those long-forgotten dreams; / but I hope someday we wake up, laughing at the mire we’ve left behind, / to find it’s not too late.”

Dour tones and duff notes notwithstanding, this has promise: at the very least, I like the idea of a more Gothic spin on Pet Shop Boys. Even if Joe and Mi-Shan still won’t look me in the eye…

The Four Disorders: ‘Cat Lady/Hell And Hackney’
The Four Disorders (self-released, no catalogue number or barcode)
Stream-only demo tracks
Released: 10th April 2014

Get it from:
Stream only on Soundcloud and YouTube.

The Four Disorders online:
Facebook Soundcloud YouTube

REVIEW – John Ellis: ‘Sly Guitar’ album, 2013 (“a playful magpie interest”)

27 Aug

John Ellis: 'Sly Guitar'

John Ellis: ‘Sly Guitar’

A skilled and flexible working guitarist since the early 1970s (travelling through punk, post-punk, pub rock, rhythm-and-blues and progressive rock in no particular order), John Ellis has never curdled as a musician. What he’s avoided doing up to now is making a player’s album. Generally he’s been content to tweak a song’s architecture as a team member (in The Vibrators and the mark two Stranglers) or as a flexible, innovative sideman (delivering fanged electric churn for Peters Hammill and Gabriel, or airship noises and roaring-Twenties fanfares for Judge Smith). Even when left to his own devices, he’s stayed away from guitar heroics – often, away from the guitar itself. He’s fermented semi-ambient hubbub for art galleries, filtered Victorian Japonisms through electronica, and taken strides into multimedia, but left the protracted strutting and soloing alone.

On ‘Sly Guitar’, however he returns to (and lays into) his main instrument with a sharp-clawed and swaggering stylishness. It’s the kind of performance that suggests he’s ripped the tail-fin off a 1950s Cadillac and carved a new guitar from it. Things are different this time. In some respects, the key to appreciating ‘Sly Guitar’ is knowing about John’s participation in a 2007 art prank, when he helped to fake a lost Hendrix rendition of the Welsh national anthem. While this particular stunt got his playing onto ‘Newsnight‘ – and was originally a joke about co-opting celebrities into random causes – viewed from here, it’s as much about the puckish and gleeful enjoyment which John gets out of playing guitar. Aspects of Ellis wit might show up on the records he’s worked on (qv. the intuitive bite of those Hammill albums, his thoughtful tricks with Smith, or the raw horse-laughs in his own rare solo songs), but a sense of liberated fun doesn’t always make it across. On ‘Sly Guitar’ it does.

I said “player’s album” – I’m also suggesting that this is the record on which John Ellis finally lets it all hang out. That’s a little misleading. Discreetly virtuosic yet always understated, John’s technique is marked out by the lean, sharp economy he’s learned from years of punk and art-rock. There are also plenty of examples of his taste for bouncing around inside delay units, and for the blocky synthwork and drum loops explored on 2008’s ‘Map of Limbo’. The music’s also liberally slathered with John’s beloved EBow sustainer, transforming notes into assorted hoots and stuttering violin chugs, or pulling them out into taffee-lengths.

These in turn blend in with ideas from all over the place. Fun notwithstanding, John’s art-school training consistently underlies his current approach (one track, with all irony intact, is called I Remember Futurism). He picks up odds-and-ends from the fashions and fads he’s seen pass by and reinterprets them with a playful magpie interest. The results blend an edgy and brittle flair with fastidious design, offset with a mischievous, practical form of musical adapt-and-reclaim.

Many of the tunes on ‘Sly Guitar’ have much in common with old pop-instrumental albums. There are tinges of Joe Meek and of perky surf-guitar capsules from the ’60s; and of those meticulous prog-tinged jingles from the ’70s. But this is just part of an overall collage effect which plucks inspiration from Hendrix, Hank Marvin and John Williams, from Robert Fripp and John Martyn; even from the likes of Fred Frith and Henry Kaiser. It also suggests that over the years John has copped a listen to everything from ‘No Pussyfooting’ and ‘Temple Head’ to On-U Sound and Moby. At the least, he’s caught their echoes as they’ve seeped through airwaves or were circulated alongside technology.

Certainly John’s thinking hard about latterday pop and accessibility; insistent club beats and nods to old crowd-pleasers drive much of the album. Pieces like Levitation and the eleven-minute title track sit on funk grooves with sleek flicks of rhythm guitar and curved, humming chromium lead lines. Snappily and space-ily rendered, the latter are recorded close enough to hear the speaker cones jumping and flattening while wellings of EBow sustain stack up behind like a pile of moonlit clouds. In the chop’n’chat of Farud Gets Electricity, John mixes a Latin loop and a dash of Stray Cats rockabilly into the recipe. Futuro’s leisurely boom-bat, wood-clack beat and clipped industrial framing recall a slimline version of Tackhead’s industrial hip-hop. Making the most of the album’s pop-up digital production sheen, it’s fleshed out by jawharp synth boings and fake horn stabs; its smoulder-point guitar lines hanging in the middle distance like burning ropes.

The beats may be familiar, but the tweaked and ruffled electrophonic timbres which John uses to build up the tunes are less so. Pedalo is as rhythmic as anything else on the record (gliding atop a cavernous trip-hop loop and cracking dub snare) but its body is made up of a mongrel set of slotted-in guitar voices – fanfare tones of firefly and conch; power-growls of distorted fuzz; a pitch-shifted shrill of parade melody teetering on top. All of these come together in spite of themselves, an ill-matched platoon who’ve learned to march in step. Under a skywriting blast of EBow sustain, I Remember Futurism interweaves a rippling set of arpeggios, passing them between a calm sky-blue organ and a guitar which sounds like a harp made of iron girders.

Embedded deep in the mix of the latter are the tinkling, caught-up accents of Brazilian cymbals and bells, and other pieces probe even deeper into worldbeat. Walking in the footsteps of Jon Hassell’s Fourth World Music, and of Transglobal Underground, John brews up vividly staged polycultural blends in which the frowning lines between ethnology and fraudulence, sympathy and exploitation might perhaps blur into irrelevance. His cyborg guitar tones counterpoint the eerie ornamented leaps of the Middle Eastern music he sources, undercutting its spiritual passion with impressionist sound-builds recalling insect swarms, oppressive heat, or the spine-crawling sense of secret surveillance. Hollowing out a Nile processional (on Don’t Be Misled By Your Eyes), he repacks it with drilling mosquito sounds, duetting Arabian slide lines and choral synths. The leisurely Levantine trip-hop of Flies elevates a souk-call vocal sample like a dreamy kite, but then subtly pollutes it with hovering swarms of static guitar buzz.

These last are much like the withering drones employed by Robert Fripp on ‘Exposure’ back in 1979, painting threatening sonic portraits of decaying industrial landscapes. You could only speculate as to whether John’s applying these same ominous atmospherics to the torn cities of the Arab spring; the idea hangs heavy. Initially The Bowl Maker of Lhasa (framed by temple bells and further baleful Frippish insect buzzes and pitch-collapses) sounds as if it’s going to do something similarly politicized for Tibet. However, it rapidly returns to clear hip-hop and funk sources – the sleek dancing duel between stinging clean guitar and EBow whistle, the playful way it lifts and reshapes a sly quote from ‘Freddie’s Dead’ in the middle of its drum-machine swing. While there are a few left-field touches (such as a timbral shift which refracts the familiar street beats into something with a twist of copper and stained glass), perhaps it’s better just to enjoy the imaginative, enthusiastic sound-painting; and not to over-freight the pieces with too much extra meaning.

The remaining tracks, though, bypass the club beats for a deeper exploration of John’s textural art-rock side. The brief roundabout of Echoplexing presents a bone-and-wood clatter of choppily-strummed flamenco guitar: echoing off to the sides of the soundfield, it joins stinging treble guitar lines and zipping insect sounds, stitched together by a child-chant organ part. The loop-and-splay Infanta shows John at his purest both as player and as music processor. Dialling up a sparkling silvery electric guitar tone, he begins the tune with Spanish classical inflections nestled in a sharp snappy reverb before abruptly leaving them to pulse and circle inside a loop-hang while he gets on with other business. He goes on to juggle a section of Hendrix jinks and transfigured rock’n’roll quotes; a countrified oud tone; elegant touches of shading, slurring and EBow elisions; a razor buzz bouncing in the background.

Elsewhere, March Of The Kitchen Taps floats a cluster of hovering, uneasy guitar parts (floats, wails and squeals) against swishing electronics like ventilation fan-blades, and against massed samples of metallic taps and bangs which flutter, slice and nail the pulse down. Cue jokes about everything-and-the-kitchen-sink: Crow On A Dying Dog eggs these on further, blending even more twiddling kitchen metals with a bagful of plastic electronics – bass twangs, burbling random-pitched vocalise, synthesized big-band swing and blaring horn-guitar parts. As a flight of sampled rooks flap past, it sounds like a weird and wilful collision between suitcase synth-pop and bleak mediaeval soundtracks.

It’s these particular pieces, in fact, that seal both the fate and triumph of ‘Sly Guitar’. Forks and taps aside, it is a kitchen-sink album: one which flea-jumps enthusiastically between slick beats and toy noises, easy funk and experimental chop-suey, clippable music and idiosyncratic personal sketches. John may have finally turned in his “player’s” album, but even this far along in the game he refuses to play it straight. Dipping in and out of formalism and fooling around, coursing around plug-ins and unravellings, he’s turned in an album which celebrates and fans out his plurality as a musician. Having mastered a humble, low-key chameleonic wilfulness – in which the appropriate art and the immediate idea directly shapes the method – he’s let it become part of him, even when he’s flexing free.

John Ellis: ‘Sly Guitar’
Chanoyu Records, CHA002
CD/download album
Released: 6th May 2013

Get it from:
Chanoyu Records.

John Ellis online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud

REVIEW – Holy Roman Empire: ‘Dante’s Inferno’ single, 2001 (“a glorious Moulin Rouge gesture”)

27 Apr
Holy Roman Empire: 'Dante's Inferno'

Holy Roman Empire: ‘Dante’s Inferno’

“Well, you got so down you went to town and bought a brand-new top. / They can take your will to live but not your will to shop. / Try to eat more ‘cos you’re hungry, and less because you’re lonely, / and don’t let that feeling fade away…”

Oxford pop pixies Holy Roman Empire seem cheerful to sell themselves as being crap. Their press-kit is full of reviews slating their appalling clothes, their mimed performances, their (allegedly) pitiful singing and their clunky tape recorders hidden inexpertly under keyboard stands. Yet they don’t half shoot themselves in the foot by coming up with such good songs.

Bloody hell – if this had shown up in 1989 it would have swept all before it. Not every song blends – so successfully – lyrics like a playful junior Morrissey with mock-pomp Carter USM Casio orchestrations and rounds it off with the cruising freeway feel of Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game. Back then this would have been a small Holy Grail for student radio, ghosting through every university bar across the land. Here and now it can only settle for being classic, timeless pop – whatever the clothing.

In case I’ve not made my point yet – Dante’s Inferno is marvellous. It’s one of those rare songs which fey critics, hung-up on the sublime disposability of pop, always whiffle on about. Well aware of the ludicrousness that lies at the heart of obsessive passion – and of the dramatic pretensions of pop music – it still goes at it full-tilt because it knows that that’s all that matters. (As a bonus, I can still believe in the song even as I reel off this kind of posturing shite… that’s high camp for you.)

Holy Roman Empire ‘s Ste Fleming and his two foils sigh as milkily as Prefab Sprout and deftly nail the paradox of all-consuming unrequited love. “You go to the doctor, and the doctor feeds you pills. / You know you need them, but you need the pain they kill. / All because you lost somebody, but never lost the feeling, / and daren’t let that feeling fade away.” Inevitably the other two songs are anticlimactic after this glorious Moulin Rouge gesture. After all, how do you follow up a song which has a ringmaster on the chorus?

Still, Holy Roman Empire can quick-march a long way on what they’ve got. What they’ve got happens to be a batch of cheesy keyboard puffs, an upbeat chirp of melody, a vocal style best compared to a pomp version of Rod, Jane & Freddy, and some of the sharpest lyrics this side of Paddy McAloon’s teenage-fluff drawer. I Bleed Petrol (punctuated by cute car-crash sound effects) could almost be a children’s singalong. Then again, there are lines like “city kids with sicknesses, and flowers placed by roads, / melting polar icecaps and the flooded southern coasts”, suggesting that the trio have made a noose out of a skipping rope and are trotting out in search of a symbolic motorist to lynch.

No Tomorrow is a bizarrely happy-sounding love song about… yes… everything turning out shit in the end. It’s a fiddling-about with goodbye ribbons as the city burns. “I was sort of wishing – yeah, I was kind of hoping, / as the ground got closer, that my parachute would open (but no…) / ‘You have to be strong now: you have to let me go,’ / so it’s off with my head and it’s on with the show.”

You have to reckon that as long as that tinselly backcloth is still there, Ste Fleming will stay happy. Supercheese wins out, then – and mighty tasty it is too.

Holy Roman Empire: ‘Dante’s Inferno’
Bluefire Records, BLU017
CD single
Released: 2001

Get it from:
Best obtained second-hand.

Artist online:
MySpace

REVIEW – Blowholy: ‘Psalm 666’ EP, 1998 (“a very young Trent Reznor chasing Tony Iommi down an endless cobbled alley”)

11 Sep
Blowholy: 'Psalm 666'

Blowholy: ‘Psalm 666’

For all the wild promo bluff (foaming descriptions of “’70s hell-riffing axe-gods having lo-fi nervous breakdowns whilst being sodomised by Satan’s own sampler under a layer of time-warped filth and modulated interference waves”) it’s easy to pin this one down. It was only a matter of time before someone copped on to the possibilities of fusing the rhythmical extremity of drum’n’bass junglism with the punch and theatrical flair of heavy metal. Strangely Brown (Blowholy’s one-man noise army) aims to be at the front of the queue to mate two musics more obsessed than most with extremity and big bangs.

If you can imagine a very young Trent Reznor chasing Tony Iommi down a narrow, endless cobbled alley, you’re halfway to imagining Blowholy. Knife-life guitar-riffs – pure Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, cored from their early ’70s pomp – ride on glittering junglist axles with a witchy, wiry vocal wound over the top. Electro-rattle meets bludgeon riffola – simple as that. Ministry did something similar with industrial techno at the start of the ’90s, and it’s fair to say that Blowholy owe them something. However, much of this EP springs from a distinctly British brand of humour and resentment.

Some of this is pulled from punk, some from the anarchic spirit of resistance in the free festivals, and some from the brutal rained-on sarcasm of the English cynic. Riding way back in the mix, crushed and distorted to a thin buzz, Strangely’s tones have a lip-smacking relish to them. He’s a rebellious and gleefully smart-arsed underdog, spitting out slap after slap to familiar targets, but with a engaging vigour. On the titular Psalm 666, he tears straight into consumerism (“Just buy what you’re told, / you are what you own. / Just do what you’re told and you’ll never be alone,”) and its pernicious work at frightening individuals into conformism. As with the metallic riffing, the song’s righteous punk disdain is tinged with Sabbath-style heavy-metal demonics (“Strip away the inane and just one voice remains. / It’s so subliminal, the devil’s own marching call: / ‘Come on, come on, come on, come on now, / fit in, fit in, fit in with the crowd’…”).

While Do As You’re Done By initially sounds more like personal revenge (“God, it gets me high to see the realisation dawn. / At last you’re facing someone you should really not have scorned!”) it’s more of a general roasting of the brainwashed – “I’ve had you here a year but you just never seem to learn. / So now it’s time to find out just what makes your flywheel turn. / If I open up your head I’ll see your tiny poisoned mind / I’m not expecting much, but I will see what I can find.” Beneath the occasional dungeon lyrics, it isn’t schoolboy sadism that drives Strangely: it’s ire at the smug, or the sheeplike, or the pretentious. ‘Dig Your Own’ (which mixes in some Mike Patton-style brat-rapping and a fistful of psychotically wiggling sax samples from Naked City) rips enthusiastic holes in some swell’s ballooning ego. “Claiming to bring the ultimate coup, / only to say what we already knew. / You’re going on so fast that you bring your own disaster. / En route from god to bastard, / so big; could not be vaster. / You’re going on so fast that it could never, ever last you…”

Scene & Herd charges back to the big unison Black Sabbath riffs, taking a sniff at speed-garage while it’s there. The dance elements are better integrated, wrapped in a grinning, glistening embrace with the guitars. This time, Strangely takes his knife to bandwagon-jumpers whose opportunism outstrips their knowledge or sincerity. “In all you do, it’s only you that you want to please… / There is no credence to the so-called words of wisdom that you sell. / But who can tell?” With great pleasure, he pronounces sentence: “It’s your fate to emulate / the world you think you have escaped / but merely aped.”

All well and good, but once the trick of drum’n’bass/metal fusion has become familiar, you do start hankering after some new tricks. Luckily, there’s Iconoplastic (Tzawai), in which Blowholy take a step on from the initial hybrid and produce something much more interesting. The power-riffing electric guitars are gone this time (occasionally replaced by scrabbles across a dislocated acoustic) and the stripes of waiting vacuum and rushing, balefully-textured noise stretched across the shuddering beat are more along the unrelenting sampledelic lines of Moonshake, Muslimgauze or The Young Gods than anything that finds its natural home in ‘Kerrang!’. The ominous Arabic samples (courtesy of Chalf Hassan) merge with the lo-fi percussive impulse, a jihad strike-force speeding across the sands. Meanwhile, the sardonic word-dancing has reached new levels of acidity. “Here we go again, with your self-important jive / about how you made a difference filling empty lives… / Well, it’s such a bed of roses with your collection of pet psychoses. / So tormented, like you meant it. / Oh, such a sensitive man!”

Blowholy are halfway there – they’re on the right track, but if they’re to become as musically interesting as the Naked City and Mr Bungle tracks they sample, they need the courage to consistently extend their own envelope. In other words, more Iconoplastics. But at least the drum’n’bass/metal crossover floodgates have been thrown open. That shaggy, long-in-the tooth rock monster has grown itself a new skeleton and is about to road-test it.

Blowholy: ‘Psalm 666’
Ketamine Leper Music, KETCDS 01 (no barcode)
CD-only EP
Released: 1998

Buy it from:
Best looked for second-hand, although CD versions will be extremely rare. Some tracks can be downloaded from Soundcloud as part of the ‘Church Bizarre’ album.

Blowholy online:
Homepage Facebook Soundcloud

REVIEW – Preludes: ‘The Moth’ & ‘The Swan’ EPs, 2011 & 2012 (“the shadow of a melody”)

6 Sep
Preludes: 'The Moth'

Preludes: ‘The Moth’

There’s the shadow of a melody in the house, floating in the dusty air. It’s coming from just around the corner, or maybe from up by the crumbling moulding.

Preludes is Matt Gasda (the sotto-voce poet who did most of the singing and keyboards in the ghostly riverbank psychedelics Bears in America) and his sister Emily. The Bears were a group so reticent and self-involved that listening to them was like spying on a set of old footprints, long-abandoned and filling with water. Some Preludes songs began life as Bears pieces before falling into this new form and flavour, so you can expect something of a family resemblance. Yet in their hypnotic and looping way, with their camp-fire canons and travelling-man guitars, Bears in America fitted (just) into the Americana bracket. In contrast, Preludes looks wistfully eastward, back towards Europe.

More specifically, Preludes capture a lost and fading atmosphere of East Coast grandeur: one which jealously guards its Old World connections, its cultural loftiness, its yellowing old money in a deadened and dreamy grip. While Matt may have relocated to New York City and settled in Brooklyn, Preludes seems to have set its heart further uptown. These songs emerge like a sigh haunting a shabby brownstone mansion on the Upper East Side, clinging to the scuffed books in its neglected library, or fluttering with a swirl of yellow leaves in its deep walled garden. It’s not that these are wordy songs of privilege; instead, they’re leisurely blurs of decaying luxury, drunk on elevated sensation and cut right back to free-drifting images of moons, flowers, loss and water, their stories dissolved. An encroaching darkness hovers around them, like time and chemistry eroding sepia photographs. At the same time, there’s a rapturous quality to the music: the thrill of the last gasp, the final pirouette of memory.

‘The Moth’ EP, and its title track in particular, set up the Preludes recipe from the start – pianos (drowned in a flat and musty reverb), blurry-edged keyboard layers (in this case, a wavering swoon of fake strings), and a faint and faded rag of vocal yearning after something it can’t quite describe, catching on whatever surrounds the moment. There’s a touch of Goth in the mix, and more than a suspicion of Nico or Anthony Hegarty; but the obliqueness and the gauzy obscurity are all Matt’s. Moonstruck, he murmurs soft, semi-operatic vocals in the backgrounds, muttering about cicadas and strange, longing transformations. Halfway along, a cheap drum machine begins to tap out a stately dance rhythm and Matt steps up to a new level of obscure, gently-impassioned reverie. (“And we’ll walk along the opening geraniums… /The light of the moon. / Open your milk-white eyes… We will never grow so old.”) It doesn’t mean so much when you pin it down. Just a handful of fleeting images, lighter than anything. Open your hand and let it drift on this sigh of breath, however, and it flushes gently with life.

It’s Emily Gasda who sings the out-of-focus waltz of The Moon And The Bonfires – sings in a small and distracted way over a softened skirl of goth keyboards; a spiralling distant dream of a barrel organ melody. Here’s more obscurity (nightswimming and natural lights; the sense of a particular, autumnal time of year). Here’s more plucking at floating, flowery images (“The violets of memory are growing in the water… / It’s like a debt you share…”) She sounds like a more peaceful version of Cranes’ Alison Shaw. The Goth tambourine and the bass drum thud behind her sound like a lull in a noisy evening. Perhaps these songs are some kind of refuge.

As goosefeather-soft as the rest, the last song – Nightlight Child – begins as a ghostly lullaby. A muffled drum and music box playout becomes a throb while Matt and Emily sing together, and for a while they’re Victorian in their magic and ruffles, their willingness to slip away into dream logic and wordplay and into ornamental fantasy. “Like water drawn from the well – moon drawn like a fish. / Nightlight child, it’s all right. / Nightlight child come to life / and from the shell alight. /A starry, starry night.” Gradually the lullaby play fades seamlessly into surreal and transforming fable: images turn macabre (moth eyes, floods rising from the throat to drown) and innocence and horror overlap. Unwinding ourselves from this particular gauze is less easy.

Preludes: 'The Swan'

Preludes: ‘The Swan’

Five-and-a-half months later (swimming back into view with a second EP, ‘The Swan’) Preludes are just as enclosed and enrapt in their consumptive old-world decay. “Snow falls in Central Park, / and for a day your fever drops,” sings Emily on a song which also coos “love is so cold” and reminisces – with a quiet, absorbed bliss – about kissing frozen hands. There’s never a suggestion that there’s any danger involved here, or a direct flicker of death. That particular disquiet just seeps into the gap that’s left for it.

In general the themes of sleep, death, illness and wasting-dream simply blush gently through the EP’s songs, each of them thinning the walls between experiences. The strangest of these is the title track, wrought with a chilly expressionism and drifting symbols. “I love the sorrow of your voice / and the wreckage of the old days” Matt muses, beneath a cloudy Blue Nile synth pad (a mirage of traffic in the evening sky) and a funerary piano line (a shard of dusty porcelain from a lost urn). Death and revival blur together (“you’re enclosed in the petals / made of snow, / born up into the clouds like ash”) in a way that’s as much phoenix as swan. “I’ll wait by the river / for the ice to tear itself up,” promises Matt, as the ritual works its way to conclusion. “Your blood will germinate the spring.” Over a minute of silence at the end of the song eases the point home.

On Sleepy Eye’d (backed by an enthusiastic music-box twinkle and lambent synth), Emily enjoys a much more innocent dream – “We’ll tear up the feathers of the stars / and make our bedding on the moon… / Take my hand, we’ll go skating on the glass, / catch fireflies with our hands.” For a while, Preludes sound as if they’ve slipped into ‘Little Nemo in Slumberland‘ and the air of rapt surrender lightens a little.

It’s only on The Well that brother and sister find out what happens when they write and sing together. Here, Emily sounds eerily like Mama Cass (moving almost imperceptibly from her previous ghostly solipsism to a kind of centred passion) while Matt murmurs an ashy, barely-there harmony. Somewhere in there is an ancient Scottish air, missing its drone but making do with a broken-limbed piano line and rising string-synth bleeds. “And the love you held in your hands like a bird / is waking up again.” sings Emily, cupping revival in her voice. “I will go down to the well / draw up water in my hands. / Tell all, all the dead / the world is now beautiful – / stop the clocks and open the windows. / We can’t understand.”

By the end of the song, it seems as if those strange arrested Preludes atmospheres might finally be breaking down, offering release. “Now I feel time as it flows / like the melting snow.” sings Emily. Somewhere out of earshot a gate is opening, a clock starting, a breath deepening.

Preludes: ‘The Moth’ & ‘The Swan’
Preludes (self-released)
Download-only EPs
Released: 21st August 2011 (‘The Moth’) & 8th February 2012 (‘The Swan’)

Get them from:
Bandcamp – ‘The Moth’; ‘The Swan’

Preludes online:
Bandcamp

T & The Wonder: ‘Corsage’ single (“a withering bouquet of sympathy”)

5 Feb
T & The Wonder: 'Corsage'

T & The Wonder: ‘Corsage’

“There are no constants, / even if we want them.” Perhaps it’s the shift of moving around, splitting apart. Chicago chamber pop duo T & The Wonder are Chicago-based no longer. Now based on separate sides of the States (singer Tavis Balkin is on the West Coast, multi-instrumentalist Patrick McCormack in Vermont) they remain a duo by an effort of will, affinity and determination. Sometimes long-distance relationships do work out…

I digress. Perhaps it’s the shift of moving around, splitting apart, but this post-move single (recorded in snatched December sessions around other practical commitments) sees T & The Wonder swapping between hope and despondency as if soberly walking a coin over their knuckles. The live drums and strings which they used to use might have been surrendered to budgeting and lack of opportunity (swapped for synthetic equivalents); but their bookish, light-touch ascerbity remains. Corsage is, in more ways than one, a withering bouquet of sympathy. Over ticking guitar, and a trapped tinkle of piano Tavis addresses a woman’s disappointment as she ages – lonely, stifled and perpetually stranded. “Is the corsage dried out? / the one that was packed away / with the empathetic gestures / and the tired old clichés?”

As to where Tavis himself stands, that’s not so clear. Sometimes he’s attuned to the pain of the woman he’s addressing – “Does the future disturb you / now that all you have left is the sound / of a lot of empty talking / and the legs that keep walking?” At other times, a growing frustration renders him cruel. “Can you depend on people, or are you just a misanthrope? / When all your lost love makes it impossible to cope,” he sings, softly, like wet leaves massing up heartlessly in the driveway. “You are a shell of a person, / a portrait of depression.” Patrick’s surge of guitar solo – a fuzzy taillight – pulls up a little swirl of blackening anger; but it hangs in the air, as if unsure of whom to fall on.

It sometimes feels as if Tavis’ own involvement in the story can be called into question. Is that a hint of guilt in his ashy, passive whisper, as if he himself might take some blame for this disaffection? “You write me, I call you, / what more can I say?” he murmurs, a little lamely. “These goddamn words only fill space.” He waxes and wanes, cold and kind, over the course of the song, without ever settling anywhere. Maybe it’s difficult to leave the scene of the accident. Maybe he doesn’t want to. Old debts, never paid? Old wishes that never resolved, but still ache on a chilly day?

The b-side, Vespa, flips the situation here – youth yearnings rather than fading middle-age, and this time it’s Tavis sitting in the role of the person about to slide down the lip of disappointment. The song itself sounds gently rapturous, both motorik and rain-dappled: a blurry cushioned wobble of electric piano, a plastic drum splat and a subliminal driving pulse. Just for the moment the daydream is blooming and Tavis can bask in it. “If I had a Vespa I would drive up to your house, / and I could kiss you on the cheek, / and we’d then hang out for the weekend – / but I don’t.” The road throws up its first little jolt, but Tavis is already smothering himself in the romance. “I can feel your hands, your hands around my waist / Your hair, your hair – it’s all across your face.”

You could get caught up in the fervent dreaminess, until you realise how evasive it is. “We could talk about how I had / changed my life direction / and just moved out of the city to a / place where things are pretty. / I don’t know…” Then you notice that as American road-movie songs go, it’s a pretty soft-edged one. Patrick’s fey touches of fluting synth and Kraftwerk buzzes: mimsy soft drinks; staying well under the speed limit. It’s not that Vespa lacks grand passion. It’s just that it’s been filtered down and compacted, firing up that diffident teetering hope with quiet fire and aching to make it real. “Living in the moment we would forge a life together – / and we’d send our loved ones letters, / every day a little better than before.” But the letdown is coming a little closer all the time, and that haunts the song. Weaving through the chorus is a second, nagging vocal line. “When I think it’s not a possibility / I want to leave, I want to leave.” Then you start wondering whether it’s less of a grand passion, and more of a grand, shy, unspoken crush. An entire world bubble-blown from a single fancy.

Two songs of apartness. Two men divided by most of a continent; linked by an ongoing sympathy, writing subtle bruised-petal songs about how the world often lacks such mutual feeling. There’s probably something more to draw out of that, but I’m not going to try. I have the feeling that if I try to describe it any more it will burst, softly, under my fingers.

T & The Wonder: ‘Corsage’
T & The Wonder (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single
Released: 28th January 2012

Buy it from:
Bandcamp

T & The Wonder online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Bandcamp Last FM iTunes

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