Tag Archives: Lee Fletcher

April 2017 – upcoming gigs – Billy Bottle & The Multiple bring ‘The Other Place’ to Exeter (2nd)

26 Mar

Pastoral jazzers and questioning songmakers Billy Bottle & The Multiple are bringing their show ‘The Other Place’ (a kind of Brexit-themed pilgrimage-cum-road movie, dealing with questions of connection, national moods and democracy) to Exeter at the beginning of April.

I wrote something extensive about the show’s roots and methods back in mid-2016, so you can read more about that here.

In other news, the band have launched a Pledgemusic crowdfunding campaign to fund the recording and release of the album version of the show – more on that here.

Billy Bottle & The Multiple: 'The Other Place'

‘The Other Place’ by Billy Bottle & The Multiple
The Barnfield Theatre, Barnfield Road, Exeter, Devon, EX1 1SN, England
Sunday 2nd April 2017, 7.00pm
– information here and here
 


 

 

November/December 2016 – upcoming gigs – more English dates for Billy Bottle & The Multiple’s ‘The Other Place’ (4th & 20th November, 10th December)

28 Oct

Billy Bottle & The Multiple - 'The Other Place' tour, 2016Mike Westbrook-affiliated pastoral Anglo-jazz explorers Billy Bottle & The Multiple have added more dates on their evolving, ongoing ‘The Other Place’ tour.

The show has its roots in a personal odyssey and serious socio-political stunt from band core Billy and Martine, who took advantage of their brief infamy as guests on ‘The Voice’ to run a whistle-stop free busking tour across southern and western England just prior to the 2015 election. In the process, they sounded out a disgruntled, despairing populace about what they thought about democracy and connection. Later, Billy and Martine put together this semi-theatrical vox-pop song-and-music roadshow on what they found, tracing a shadow of disaffection which culminated in the Brexit vote earlier this year.

For the full skinny on ‘The Other Place’, click back a few months. I’ve been slow off the mark again, and missed promoting their Margate and Brighton dates in September; but here are the rest of the dates between now and Christmas… unless they wangle a few more in the interim, which is entirely possible. For now, there are two shows in Cornwall (the first being the 4th November) and one in London.

As before, the band for ‘The Other Place’ consists of Billy Bottle (voice, keyboards, guitar), Martine Waltier (voice, violin, guitar, percussion), Roz Harding (alto saxophone, recorder, percussion), flautist/singer/percussionist Vivien Goodwin-Darke (flute, voice, percussion) and Lee Fletcher (synths, soundscapes, percussion).
 

June/July/October 2016 – upcoming gigs – Billy Bottle & The Multiple tour ‘The Other Place – a Vox-Popera’ across the English South-West and South Coast

22 Jun

Whatever happens in the wake of this week’s Britain-in-Europe referendum, there are going to be plenty of questions asked about democracy, accountability and connection. Personally, I’m expecting most of them to be shouted or sworn rather than asked, so I’m not looking forward to it… especially if I’m going to be one of the people doing the swearing.

Last year, Billy Bottle & The Multiple were asking a few of those questions themselves. Since they’re heirs to the spirit of Daevid Allen rather than that of Jeremy Paxman, they were asking them in their own unorthodox way. This month, as part of an ongoing follow-up roadshow stretching into autumn (and perhaps beyond), they’re beginning to show us what they discovered.

* * * * * * * *

Billy Bottle, 2016

‘The Other Place – A Vox-Popera’

“On the evening of 7th May, 2015, a pint of milk mysteriously appears at the gates of Parliament.

Special delivery...

Special delivery…

“Set in the week running up to a UK general election, The Other Place tells the true story of two musicians from Devon as they make their way slowly to Westminster. On high streets, market squares and seafront promenades, they perform the same song, forty-nine times over, and at each stop they start conversations with whoever they meet, asking them ‘Who’s got the Power?’

At the end of a long and winding journey, they arrive at Parliament Square on a milk float to make their delivery: a symbolic reminder that the power doesn’t belong to the inhabitants of Westminster, it is given to them by the rest of us.

“This journey through the foundations of British democracy inspired a sequence of songs whose lyrics come from the words of the voters (and non-voters) that Billy and Martine met on their journey. It is a celebration of gentler kinds of power and an invitation to the audience to make their voices heard.

Billy Bottle & The Multiple - 'The Other Place' - on tour, 2016“The Multiple currently features Martine Waltier (voice, violin, guitar, percussion), Roz Harding (alto saxophone, recorder, percussion) and Billy Bottle (voice, keyboards, guitar), all of whom are mainstays of Mike Westbrook’s Uncommon Orchestra; plus flautist/singer/percussionist Vivien Goodwin-Darke (from the psychedelic rock band Magic Bus) and recording artist and producer Lee Fletcher (of Unsung Productions) on synths, soundscapes and percussion. Like the best art rock, they combine folk, jazz, pop and minimalism in an engaging and meaningful way.

Complete with wobbly camera footage and the sounds of the streets, this performance is a real democratic party in action!”

* * * * * * * *

As regards the delivery of the Power… it all began as a stunt, of sorts. In January 2015, a peak-time British TV audience was treated to the sight of Billy and Martine ripping into an acoustic busker-cover of Snap!’s old Eurodance chestnut as they competed in ‘The Voice’. Wrapped in pink quilting, flower-child swirl prints and a sunshine glow, chatty about their south Devon rural idyll (and their taste for naturism), they gave the impression of being only a couple of brow-stars away from the Age of Aquarius. They delighted the judges (and went down a storm with a supposedly-hippy-proof public) but their faces and demeanour didn’t fit the reality TV narrative, and they didn’t get any further in the contest. By popular demand the single was out that summer via Bandcamp and cottage industry: it sold nicely behind the scenes and away from the charts; and that might have been that.


 

However, painting the Bottle squad as talented, bright-eyed novelty hippies is to get no further than the colourful wrapping; to miss the bright, enquiring intelligence under the apparent sunny simplicity; and to mistake constructive, conscious choices for naivety and innocence. Before they’d even thought of stepping onto ‘The Voice’s stage, Billy and Martine had been longstanding Westbrook Band and Dave Sinclair associates, with urban roots in Darlington and London supplemented by dues paid in neo-progressive rock, indie, music teaching and circuses. Already able to tap and hold serious British musical talent, their 2013 album ‘Unrecorded Beam’ had been a triumph of pastoral ensemble jazz; scooping up the poetry of Thoreau and blowing new leaf-green life through it, zig-zagging through the soundfields like a tripping honeybee. ‘The Voice’ was a diversion – a game they were coaxed into. In turn it triggered another experiment in play, taking something apparently trivial and fluffy but using it to tap into a more serious undercurrent.

The busk pilgrimage that would eventually become ‘The Other Place’ started as an attempt at a “rolling conversational democratic jam session.” With no more than the violin, acoustic guitar, costumes and voices from the ‘Voice’ session, Billy and Martine flipped their brief brush with celebrity into an engagement with recognition and a much more down-to-earth version of meet’n’greet. They rode on the back of their ‘Voice’ platform not in order to achieve celebrity, but to set up a chat: a little conversation at the feet of the Big Society, where the bunions and the broken toes are. What they found and heard – and recorded en route – would eventually weave itself into the sonic fabric of ‘The Other Place’, fleshed out by jazz reeds and woodwind, and aided and abetted by production wizard Lee Fletcher (who’d done so much for the encompassing feel of ‘Unrecorded Beam’ and was co-opted into the Multiple once they’d realised the multimedia nature of the emerging new project).

In lieu of any sonic or visual teasers for the show (the Multiple are keeping their cards close to their chests on that one) here are some clipped’n’mixed reflections from the original voyage, all taken from their blog of the original roadtrip:

“We’re not pretending we’ve got any answers. We’re definitely not pretending that wearing fluorescent tights and playing a song in the street is a way to change things. But it’s a way in, a way to start meeting people, catching little snatches of a tune that this country is humming under its breath, that nobody’s quite remembered the words to yet…

“When you travel slower, the country gets larger. Stopping off at so many places along the way, Exeter is a really long way from Newton Abbot, Bristol is a really long way from Exeter. You realise that each of these places is a world, the world of the people who live here and do their best to make life work in the conditions in which they find themselves. Seeing news clips of the party leaders climbing out of helicopters or stepping off intercity trains, it feels like they are whizzing up and down a different country, a smaller country, a country where most of the places we are visiting don’t matter very much…

“Each time we get off the train at a new place, we find ourselves sniffing the air, sensing for clues as to what it is like to be getting on with your life in a place like this. And the clothes, the music, the harmless foolishness of our little gang seems to open up a line of contact, so that within twenty seconds people are talking to us about their lives….

“People start off curious and cautious. They see us coming a mile off, the technicolour outfits, the huge #dontjustvote stickers on our instrument cases. Sometimes they recognise us off ‘The Voice’. They want to know what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and that means we have to keep asking ourselves those questions, figuring out the answers as we go along. They want to know what we’re selling, what we’re trying to persuade them of, and we tell them really we just want to start conversations, to meet people, to find out what’s going on in this country now, what this election actually means.

“When they start talking to us, they usually start with a flat statement, something definitive. ‘I never vote.’ ‘They’re all the same.’ ‘There’s no point, is there?’ But as they realise we’re actually interested, the way they talk changes, something else comes out. You can hear how much they care. Everyone we meet feels disillusioned, disengaged, disenfranchised. They all feel like they’re not being heard. A lot of them aren’t voting. Yet they also believe that we as people do have power, they just can’t see a route to change that goes through the ballot box…

“In Trowbridge, we started playing and police came running round the corner. There had been a theft of a piece of meat from a shop. A shopkeeper came running towards us, she thought we were just shouting in the street, shouting like a thief. Well, we were shouting in the street. A few minutes later, Bill was listening to the story of a man who had been homeless for twelve years as he talked about his father’s addiction and how he died. At the end, there would have been no point in words. The two of them stood there in the street, holding each other, crying.

“In Brighton and Lewes, the air smells green, and then we cross some unmarked threshold and in the next few towns another reality takes over. Listening to the way people talk, we find ourselves starting to understand why they are drawn to UKIP, not because the facts or the arguments add up, but because in this reality it could sound like they make sense.

“The song is the same in every place, but something changes, grows, deepens. Maybe what we’re doing is charging up the song, like we have to keep charging our phones whenever we get a few minutes near a socket. All of these encounters, conversations, stories are charging up this song we started out with and the song is carrying them.

“All along this journey, we’ve been feeling an aching gap between the cold anger, disillusionment, exhaustion that nearly everyone we talk to has when they talk about the political system and something else, something that doesn’t come so easily into words, but is a kind of faith in people, in people’s ability to muddle through, to somehow go on making life work, finding opportunities for kindness in the middle of all its absurdities.

“Maybe this all has something to do with what we mean by power? A friend of ours, Anthony McCann, talks about the idea of a ‘politics of gentleness’. Watching the news about this election, gentleness and politics don’t really seem like words that belong together. But what he says is that when we think about power, we usually think of it as the ability to manipulate, control or dominate other people. And since those are all pretty nasty ways of treating people, and since most of us don’t actually want to treat people in nasty ways, that way of thinking about power makes it something we wouldn’t want to have, which makes us powerless.


 
“So what if there were other ways of thinking about power? What if there were other kinds of power that exist, all the time, so much part of our everyday lives that we take them for granted? Anthony talks about power as ‘the ability to vary the experience of oneself or others’. As an example of this gentle power, he talks about what it’s like to be a parent holding a small child… And maybe it’s this kind of power that people feel, that they have some kind of trust in, even if it’s not easy to give it words?…”

We’re going to deliver The Power to Westminster.

“When we started saying that, it was a joke, but as we kept joking about it, the thought deepened on us. We’re still figuring all of this out as we go along, finding out what we’re doing by doing it, but it’s starting to seem like this journey culminates in an ironic ritual: the delivering of The Power to Westminster, to remind the politicians that The Power doesn’t belong to them, not really, not on polling day, or even on any other day.

“The Power is loaned to them by the people, and they can hardly dare to acknowledge how grudgingly that loan is made, how overdue the repayments have become. This is the other deficit, the one that no one is making pledges about, and someday the people may call in the loan.”
 
* * * * * * * *

Or, to put it another way (as another beloved couple did, in another time and another place):

“Are you serious?”
“About what I do, yes. Not necessarily the way I do it.”

Don't Just Vote
 

REVIEW – Fletcher|Fletcher|Reuter: ‘Islands’ single, 2013 (“setting things right as well as respecting the source”)

9 Sep

Fletcher/Fletcher/Reuter: 'Islands'

Fletcher|Fletcher|Reuter: ‘Islands’

Ironically, we often record cover versions to find out – or to show – who we are.

Markus Reuter, for instance, would prefer it if other people could stop telling him who he is. Too many of them are telling him that he’s obliged to be the twenty-first century’s Robert Fripp. They can’t get past his Frippic virtuosity on touch guitar, his past as a Fripp student, or his work with the man’s former King Crimson colleagues (in Stick Men and Tuner). They can’t even get over the fact that these days he plays all of the Fripp parts in the Crimson ProjeKCt…

Ah. Well, all right, but Markus’ vivid success in the sprawling latterday Crimson family shouldn’t have to box in a musician as stubbornly wide-ranging as he is. Yet it does, even though you don’t have to scratch him too deeply to discover that he’s not as enFrippened as he seems. When it comes to willful and wayward yet methodical 1970s virtuosi, Mike Oldfield is kernelled deeper in Markus’ heart than Fripp is. Hence this unexpected and open-armed cover of a long-forgotten Oldfield song, recorded by Markus in cahoots with long-term collaborators Lee and Lisa Fletcher, and demonstrating that Markus deals with more musical colours than just ‘Red’ ones.

A few sketchy parallels can be drawn here. When Oldfield released the original Islands single (back in 1987, towards the uglier end of his Virgin Records contract), he wasn’t entirely sure who he was. Though he’d made his name via intricate, acclaimed confections of multi-instrumental experimental rock, spatial Celtic folk and classical minimalism, by the mid-’80s Virgin had talked him into writing hit-and-miss pop songs dressed up with fat blobs of Fairlight, gated reverb and arena grease. The ‘Islands’ album floundered to cover both poles – a side of lengthy neoclassical fare (heavily spiced with chants, electric flourishes and whirring jazz flute) counterweighted a side of echoing pomp-rock (with straining guest singers and drums like torpid cannons). Even back then, this didn’t age well, despite spawning a vapid video album in which Bonnie Tyler and Kevin Ayers (in ‘Miami Vice’ regalia and power-frosted hairdos) sang and jostled their way through pastel-misted virtual realities and through corny CGI blizzards of New Age totems, ducking flying Tutankhamuns as they went.

At that point Mike Oldfield was pretty lost. Though he’d only stick the situation out for one more album (before rebelling and revitalizing himself via the inspired slice-and-dice music of ‘Amarok’) in 1987 he seemed beached. Islands – the song – ended up a little lost as well. Uniting strands of John Donne, Celtic Big Music and Dream Academy oboe, it could have triumphed over the crash of reverb: with its lyric of loneliness unclenching it could have become one of the decade’s all-join-hands power ballads. It even had Bonnie Tyler singing it, all sandpaper and yodels. What actually happened is that it floated round the middle of various European charts for a while and then sank.

In contrast to the lacquered, divided and ultimately stranded figure that Oldfield cut in the late ’80s, Lee Fletcher comes to Islands knowing himself and knowing what he’s doing. After a decade of quiet self-apprenticeship and networking, the Fletcher sound has blossomed into a rich pool of talented instrumentalists and instrumentation – digital blips to rattling jazz, frosty-fanged art-rock guitars to keening folk and glowing chamber music, choreographed with a mixture of precise delicacy and expansive flair. His auteur-producer take on Islands doesn’t just restore the song’s appeal. As a string quartet jumps from scratchy shellac recording to full live presence alongside uillean pipes and whistle – and as Markus rides happily at the centre of the song, his touch guitar chords and slithers fanning out like a nerve map – it restores the song’s lost Oldfield-ness. This could be as much rebuke as tribute. Either way, there’s the feel of setting things right as well as respecting the source.

There’s a little of the undulant Saharan patter of a Peter Gabriel song (reinforced by Tony Levin’s prowling spring of a bass part). There’s the spirit of an Irish pub session, too (Alan Burton’s pipework recalls other Oldfield moments, such as the haunted morning chills of ‘Ommadawn’ or Paddy Moloney’s warmer dip-ins on ‘Five Miles Out’ and ‘Amarok’). Finally, there’s the third side of the Fletcher|Fletcher|Reuter team – Lisa Fletcher. Compared to Lee or to Markus, it’s less clear whether she knows who she is, musically. More to the point, it’s not even clear whether she thinks its important. She’s the only member of the F|F|R trio who’s got form for actual impersonation (if you don’t believe me, check out her startling Sinead O’Connor impression from an old series of ‘Stars In Their Eyes’) and for now, she’s keeping up that sensuous and welcoming vocal persona with which she helmed Lee’s ‘Faith In Worthless Things‘ last year – a flushed, de-gushed and beautifully controlled Kate Bush mezzo which slips supple invisible fingers round the lyrics, caresses them, and passes on by.

It’s a low-key take compared to Bonnie’s hearts-and-guts original. What matters, though, is that it works: a vocal and a sentiment that’s a welling rather than a sobbing, and far better at catching the quickening thaw that’s being voiced in Oldfield’s lyrics. Beyond the beautiful sound, Lisa remains something of an enigma as a singer and as an adept interpreter – still playing a game of veils in which flashes of other singers, other sentiments distract our curiosity, and behind which she’s drawing out other people’s words and launching them with the subtlest of spins. It makes me wonder what she’ll sound like when she’s singing her own songs. For now, she’s transformed Islands into a shimmering welcome rather than an emotive wrack, and has kept her own mystery as she does it. No easy trick.

Fletcher|Fletcher|Reuter: ‘Islands’
Unsung Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single
Released: 10th June 2013

Get it from:
Bandcamp

Fletcher|Fletcher|Reuter online:
Bandcamp

Lee Fletcher online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Bandcamp

Lisa Fletcher online:
Facebook

Markus Reuter online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM YouTube

REVIEW – Lee Fletcher: ‘The Cracks Within: FiWT Remixes’ remix mini-album, 2013 (“unstitched, re-embroidered, re-folded”)

17 Mar
Lee Fletcher: 'The Cracks Within: FiWT Remixes'

Lee Fletcher: ‘The Cracks Within: FiWT Remixes’

‘Faith In Worthless Things’ was one of 2012’s surprise pleasures. Lee Fletcher’s debut album was the late-blossoming distillation of years of work as engineer and confidant to assorted art-rock musicians, and of even more years absorbing influences and refining them in a budding songwriter’s heart.

What emerged was a sleek, assured and finely-honed planned-patchwork of an album. It pulled in sounds from touch guitars, Uillean pipes, crunchy rhythm loops, ukeleles, powdered trumpets and silky synthesizers; it mused on betrayals, work, bewitchment and people in general; and it drew on a wide but surprising coherent blend of string-quartet chamber pop, soul and trip hop, 1970s Scott Walker, King Crimson-flavoured progressive rock, electronica and Anglo-folk.

While Lee’s firm and expansive vision gave the album both shape and finish, it was also very much a group effort, achieved hand in hand with his singer wife Lisa plus the chameleonic touch guitarist/soundscaper Markus Reuter and a small battalion of interested musicians from around the world. This short album of follow-up remixes keeps that spirit, with a couple of returning collaborators and new reinventors let loose on the tracks.

Only two songs from ‘Faith In Worthless Things’ make it to this particular phase. There’s the title track – originally a humble state-of-the-world address sung by Lisa but dispatched by Lee, people-watching at the railway station in his Devon hometown, and sampling a picture of humanity from its wandering fragments on an ordinary morning. There’s also The Inner Voice, in which Lisa soars on a rich carpet of soul-inspired smoothness; delicately and beadily picking apart matters of confidence and collaboration, while unhitching – scuffed, but quietly determined – from a dragging entanglement. The latter was the album’s obvious single, so it’s interesting to see three different remixers work three different shades of pop out of it.

Of these, Brazilian proggers-turned-clubbers Worldengine offer perhaps the most satisfying reinvention – a slink-and-roll electronica take full of whispering creep, voice fuzz and closed-eye pulse beats. The smooth soul of the original is pared back in favour of odd, gently challenging chording and textures: as if Lisa’s vocal line has been gently unwound from its original branch and wrapped carefully around a new one. Imagine what might happen if David Torn had as much pop clout as Madonna does, and you’ll have some idea of where Worldengine take this.

Two other remixers take The Inner Voice further out, but perhaps with less originality. The mix from German DJ Ingo Vogelmann battles and switches restlessly between its whispering electronic-ambient chamber intro, heavily synthesized cyberpop and a naked acoustic strum. The onetime 4hero cohort Branwen Somatik offers a similarly morphing dance switchback – initially a slightly dubby hip-hop take with an eerie twist, then a transformation to minimally-sheathed soul-pop, finally melting away in a dubby whisper of liquefying beats.

There are no fewer than six versions of Faith In Worthless Things, including a return for Ingo Vogelmann who offers a mix replete with Orb/Jean Michel Jarre-flavoured electronica (strong on the breezy minimalism, and dappled with bits of dub and techno). Adrian Benavides has honed himself an industrial pop version full of collapsing sheet metal and drill bits. Fabio Trentini provides an ambient pop take with an art-pop tweak – part Japan (if the ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’ era took precedence) and part Crafty Guitarist. Lee’s words and Lisa’s sweet-but-stately vocals sit, unfazed, in these new cradles.

Having said that, this particular song is less suited to being strapped into dance, and other approaches are preferable. Under his Hollowcreature alias, David Picking seems to realise this; he keeps and highlights the train-swish from the intro, brings Lee’s own warm and pleasant guide vocals to the forefront for half of the time, and comes up with a subtly dubby version of the song’s English pastoral feel. The latter quality is something which Tim Motzer appears to have picked up on too, as he moves Faith In Worthless Things into a more British progressive rock area. This he does via a number of changes – jazz vibraphone, the ghost of a hard-rock riff and eventually a build up into a Pink Floyd blaze replete with Gilmourian guitar. It seems obvious, but there’s some clever sleight-of-hand here: Lisa is metamorphosed cunningly by the new arrangement into a leathered-up rock goddess, all without a change to her vocal part.

Tobias Reber, on the other hand, manages to be both daring and successful in his own mix, taking an unexpected creative risk and pulling it off. He contributes the best of the remixes on offer, as well as the most original. His reconstructive take on the songs sees it unstitched and re-embroidered, re-folded. The song is re-imagined over an uneasy sea-roll of structure. New chording, constructed from the components of the original piece, produces a striking new perspective; a different place from which Lee, through Lisa, can watch the world and see its unsettling currents ripple past and under him.

Each remix, though, gently unbuttons ‘Faith In Worthless Things’ again and reminds us of that collaborative feeling which suffused it. The rolling and friction between Lee’s ideas and where his accomplished collaborators took them – a journey in motion.

Lee Fletcher: ‘The Cracks Within: FiWT Remixes’
Unsung Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only mini-album
Released: 5th February 2013

Get it from:
Bandcamp

Lee Fletcher online:
Homepage Facebook TwitterBandcamp

REVIEW – Lee Fletcher: ‘Faith In Worthless Things’ album, 2012 (“rich and delicate”)

28 Aug
Lee Fletcher: 'Faith In Worthless Things'

Lee Fletcher: ‘Faith In Worthless Things’

And he came out from behind the console, and he spread out his dreams.

If you know Lee Fletcher already, it’s probably only in passing: maybe for the handful of mannered electro-pop tracks he and his wife Lisa have put out over the past decade as [halo]. More likely, you’ll know him for his extensive work as producer/engineer with centrozoon, Markus Reuter and with assorted King Crimson spin-offs including Tuner and Stick Men: well-established as a producer and engineer out at the more technical end of art-rock, you’d expect his own current music to be stark, or detached, or both.

It’s not just the question of his choice of colleague: it’s more that people in his position are generally there to get a job done, massaging and harassing slack musicians or their work into proper performance. If they’re of the more creative ilk, they might get to tweak their charges’ output into more original shapes. If they get around to putting out albums, these are likely to be back-to-basics vanity projects or all-star galleries of guest singers and studio flair – bought by fans for the tricks and the rarities, but then left to gather dust. Generally speaking, producers’ own records aren’t supposed to be romantic, aren’t supposed to be involved. Most especially, they’re not supposed to be revealing.

Lee Fletcher clearly has other ideas, and he won’t be doing quite what you expect of him.

Starting with the surface and working in… ‘Faith In Worthless Things’ certainly has the striking richness of sound you’d expect from someone of Lee’s experience. Live strings, wind instruments and solo cameos merge seamlessly with his own intricate programming and panoramic instrumentation in a fine blend of console wizardry and warm acoustic work. Rich and delicate arrangements encompass stirring contributions by guest players from right across the musical spectrum. Among others making their marks, the album boasts broad strokes and fine detail from art-rock guitarists Tim Motzer and Robert Fripp, jazz drift (from trumpeter Luca Calabrese, double bass player Oliver Klemp and drummer Matthias Macht), and sky-curve pedal steel playing from BJ Cole. Equally memorable moments come when Uillean pipes (courtesy of Baka Beyond’s Alan Burton) and, to particular moving effect, Jacqueline Kershaw’s French horn are woven subtly into the mix, set against sonic glitch and pillowy atmospherics.

If any of this orchestrated, cross-disciplinary lushness suggests other precedents to you, you’re right. Anyone familiar with David Sylvian’s electro-acoustic songscapes in the 1980s (or who subsequently took on the likes of Jane Siberry, Caroline Lavelle or no-man, whose violinist Steve Bingham plays a prominent role here) will recognise the wellsprings and traditions from which ‘Faith In Worthless Things’ draws. Miracles On Trees (a nimble quiltwork canon of touch-guitar, pipes and vocal harmonies suggesting Kate Bush fronting King Crimson) brings in additional strands of clean New Age-y folktronica, while more neurotic, Crimsonic arpeggios are stitched through A Life On Loan. Elsewhere, you’ll find fleeting, delicately organised touches from industrial electronica and dancehall reggae (as if bled in from a wobbling radio dial) and ingredients from Lee’s recent forays into torch song (via David Lynch’s protégée Christa Bell).  There’s certainly a strong debt to Scott Walker’s luxuriant orchestral pop work, made explicit via an enthusiastically dreamy cover of Long About Now.

However, much of the sonic recipe is Lee’s own spin on things – a developing and broadening sonic signature which began to unveil itself earlier in the year on GRICE’s Fletcher-produced  ‘Propeller’ (which featured many of the same players and a similar production ethos). ‘Faith In Worthless Things’ is also shaped by two featured players in particular – historically, the other two beats of Lee’s musical heart. On touch guitar, Markus Reuter adds a broad catalogue of supporting instrumental parts: textured or clean, rhythmic or melodic, banked-up or solo. While integral to the album’s fabric, his playing  also fades skilfully out of the foreground – although he’s constantly present, it’s as if he’s seen only in brief flashes, running through the trees, keeping pace with the sound. Meanwhile, Lisa Fletcher takes centre-stage (as she did with [halo]) to provide almost all of the album’s vocals as well as acting as Lee’s muse and interpreter. She sings even the most painstaking lyric with the cool, classical, adult sensuality of a pop diva who might at any moment slide off her long black concert dress and walk, naked and magnificent, out into the sea.

In spite of all of this sterling support, if you drill down through the music (past all of the tasteful production stylings, the guest players and the ornamentation) you’ll find a songwriter’s album underneath. While his physical voice is present only as a few murmured harmonies-cum-guide vocals dropped across a handful of tracks, Lee Fletcher’s songwriting voice entirely dominates the album. It even has its own particular hallmarks – a sophisticated way with compositional patterns which takes as much from chanson and European music as it does from Anglo-American pop; plus a yen for long, looping melodic journeys across an extended succession of chords. Lyrically he follows the earnest, philosophical musings of prog song-poets such as Peter Hammill; immersing himself in concepts or thoughts and writing his way through them with shades of classic verse, occasionally knocking frictional sparks against the constraints of the surrounding pop music.

There’s an interesting pull-and-push between this ever-so-slightly awkward lyrical grain and Lisa’s glossy-smooth vocals, just enough of a catch and grind to put a polish on the one and a depth on the other. When both Fletchers team up as writers on The Inner Voice, there’s an extra lift, bringing in the kind of hi-concept soul soar you’d have expected from Minnie Riperton or Commodores, or indeed from Janelle Monáe (if the latter’s leant over from a soul background to look into art-pop, the Fletchers seem to be leaning the other way.) The cruising, creamy melody hides some sharp barbs : the song’s partly an elegant kiss-off to a past lover or collaborator, partly a “won’t-get-fooled-again” statement of intent and new faith and intent. “You did me a great favour, in a melancholic way,” sings Lisa, in cool and assured tones. “The lesson learned and actioned for today / is to listen to the inner voice and serve that impulse well./ Have courage in conviction, break the shell.” Gracious in retreat, but along the way a polite yet lethal line of stilettos are being inserted into a turned and oblivious back (like some kind of vengeful acupuncture).

While Lee’s other lyrical concerns occasionally stretch to brooding worksong (“marching up the hill all day, fetching pails of water for the crown / Until the playtime whistle sounds, and blows your hallowed dreams away”) and wide-eyed nature worship (“the seasons are aligning/ Shedding Mother Nature’s silver skin /bringing balance to the timing”) he’s at his best when he’s drifting into the hazy realm of the personal. Part of this touches on the mutability and contradictions of love – its ability, in any given moment, to contain frailty and fears alongside strength, devotion and enrapturement. On The Number, he and collaborator SiRenée set up a picture of the start of intimacy as a phone call into the unknown: “Hello, you’ve reached the number of my secret voice / And though I asked you not to call / Your instinct made the choice… / I knew you’d call, I knew you’d love me… Stranger on the line, I’ve known you always.” Dusted by Luca Calabrese’s  sprays of muted Jon Hassell-ish trumpet, SiRenée sings the words in a misty bank of close and teasing harmonies – an enigmatic telephone nymph, she spins a spell of reflected longing as if at any moment she could either become flesh or simply vanish.

At the other end of the scale, where love is sealed and secure (with spouse, friends, family or perhaps all together), there is Life’s A Long Time Short; a Markus Reuter co-write in which an encroaching chill of the knowledge of ageing and death begins to gnaw at that security. “Our time is fleeting – / a love so true is truly painful. / A hurt that’s so divine – / at once the symptom and remedy.” Against a mournful ominous French horn line and a decaying fall of twinkling, dying Reuter touch-guitar chords, the song gradually passes from innocence (“there is no end, all time descends – / the trick is not to care”) to a warning (“there is an end. / Make all amends”)while Lisa sings with a subtle and breathless sense of disquiet, like a flickering ghost. All along, Lee watches with a poignantly shifting mixture of love, devotion and horror. Caught up within the current of time, all he can do is celebrate and confirm the life and value he shares in the now, while watching the inevitable washing-away and mourning coming closer and closer: “And as you grow, /  I watch in rhapsody / the miracle you are…/Inside I’m screaming.” 

On other occasions, Lee looks further outside, though it’s not always a comfort. Peering at the rapacious dazzle of television and pop media on Is It Me (Or Is It You?) he gets burned for his pains, then frets and growls out a proggy sermon about the callousness of the wider world: “Such a passion for freedom and brutality… / we pillage the living, ever seeking, kiss and telling morality / besieging all senses with apathy.” It’s the album’s title track that provides him with the still point which he needs. Out at the railway station café from dawn till dusk, notepad in hand, he’s watching the universe go about its business. Rails lead away to both possibility and obscurity; travellers move from place to place, passing through crowds while wrapping themselves in solitude; and Lee is “dreaming of the perfect future /  tall on tales, and short on truth.”

Here, out in the flow, he plays observer to small, everyday aggravations and hints at family disappointments spawning both small aches and broken-up little personal worlds: “children crying, mothers braying / Fathers absent once again.” Here, too, he finds his sympathy renewed, his understanding broadened: “all at one with situation – / Circumstance breeds condemnation / of our fellow man.” Encompassed by the lives and voyages of others,  surrounded by the signs and signifiers of both possibility and stagnation, he comes to a quiet acceptance of human fallibility and connection – “we’re bound by time, though here alone – / many rivers run as one. / Faith to heal the cracks within, / praying for life’s worthless things.” A small and modest epiphany, it’s the heart of the album and the song that binds everything together – including Lee’s divided impulses as skilled producer, exploring songwriter and man with a heart. Affection and anger, dislocation and commonality, families and strangers, nature and the grind, all linked under a lovingly gilded arch of strings, soft voices and soundscapes.

Lee Fletcher: ‘Faith In Worthless Things’
Unsung Records, UR019CD (4260139121021)
CD/download album
Released: 1st October 2012

Buy it from:
Bandcamp

Lee Fletcher online:
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