Tag Archives: songs that sound like summer

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 – Robert White: ‘Everything Is Free’ video single, 2013 (“blown up with a wondrous inner light”)

12 Apr

“Everything is free now, / that’s what they say. / Everything I ever done, / gonna give it away.”

Innocence blisters. Sometimes you have to take it – and yourself – away for a while, to cradle it and let it heal.

In spite of over thirty years in the songwriting business (he started young, with anything that he could get his hands on), Robert White still has that quality of innocence. If he’s got scars, he bears them calmly and with acceptance, but he must have suffered some psychic sunburn along the way. There were those early ’80s swirls around no-budget London psychedelia, keeping up a fit of giggles and avoiding becoming a casualty. Then there was the bristling musical tensions of Levitation, continually blowing their own heat-shield and ending up as five men biting each others ankles. Finally, there was the pearly, patchy career of his own Milk & Honey Band.

It’s not as if the Milks were the only people in the last couple of decades who smoked and breathed that Beatles mix of singalong wit, music hall parp and peacock splendor (Karl Wallinger and Roland Orzabal, to name but two, made a decent fist of it). But for my money, if you want that luminous Lennon/McCartney glow picked up and rolled out like a quilt, then Bob’s yer avuncular. He and the Milks should have been treasured by everyone. You; your granny; ‘Mojo’ Man; that painfully hip little boy down the road who secretly yearns for pure pop and papers his bedroom wall with old Byrds and Teenage Fanclub sleeves. Instead, you probably never got to hear them. Shame. And for three years, Bob has been hiding up and keeping quiet: skulking in Fulking, on the South Downs chalkhills. Those gifts which he used to apply to music, he’s been spending on photography instead – pictures of local landscapes blown up with a wondrous inner light; an illumination rendering sweeping Sussex hillsides alive with warm energies.

Here, though, is Bob alone; drawn back to instruments, woodshedding again. Now he’s pulling the dustcloth off a beautiful brand new Gillian Welch cover for us to have a listen to. Welch seems to be something of a go-to girl for art-rockers; at least, for those of them who are thirsty for a wellspring of country without the taste of cattle and spurs (see also A Marble Calm’s glorious Frisell-meets-Eno roll through I Dream A Highway) and Bob’s version honours her original simplicity. He could have festooned it in harmonies and ringing guitars, but instead it’s mostly just him, a light-as-moonbeams piano, and the kind of reverb that turns slapback into caress. Everything else there has blossomed onto the song like dew. There are touches of synth cello, a glockenspiel or two; maybe a celesta towards the end. As things travel onwards, water-drop swells of backward sound are delicately varnished onto the keystrokes.

That’s the sound: now listen to the song, and the singer. Bob’s voice is lower than it was, perhaps tempered with a couple of hairline cracks of resignation, as he slips inside Welch’s words and makes them his own. The business bruises; the thoughts of escape, and of dignity – “I can get a tip jar, gas up the car, / try to make a little change down at the bar. / Or I can get a straight job – I’ve done it before. / Never minded working hard, it’s who I’m working for.” Disaffection, though, doesn’t entirely clog up the world. The compulsion of songs is sometimes sung about as if it were a curse: here, it’s more about music coming regardless. It’s hard not to feel that Bob’s singing for himself when he murmurs out lines of guarded, flowing creation (“every day I wake up humming a song / but I don’t need to run around, I just stay home,”) and, finally, resolution. (“I’m going to do it anyway / even if it doesn’t pay.”) I think he’s back. Please don’t miss him this time, will you?

Robert White: ‘Everything Is Free’
Robert White (no catalogue number or barcode)
Video-only single
Released: 13th February 2013

Get it from:
Currently only viewable as video – no wider release announced yet. Video by Nick Power @ iseetigers.

Robert White online:
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Mini-album reviews – Lee Fletcher: ‘The Cracks Within: FiWT Remixes’ (“unstitched, re-embroidered, re-folded”)

9 Feb
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 – Apricot Rail: ‘Basket Press’ single, 2013 (“a five-minute garland”)

22 Jan
Apricot Rail: 'Basket Press'

Apricot Rail: ‘Basket Press’

Damn, but latter-day post-rock bands can be dour. Something renders so many of them dry, or scrunched up into a kind of passive-aggressive melodrama. Too many of them belong to the post-Mogwai/Explosions In The Sky faction – increasingly hackneyed building blocks of minimal, stilted guitar arpeggios, building to a fuzzed-up tumble of noise via a gradual crescendo. I’ve heard it too often now. It’s like watching the same slow-motion fireworks every night – every time, the same chilly histrionics.

Perth sextet Apricot Rail, trailing this new single for their second album ‘Quarrels’, manage to avoid that disappointment. As ever, they bring some of the original post-rock enchantment back as well as plenty of enchantment of their own. Admittedly, on a first hearing Basket Press is more conventionally post-rocky than their previous outing (2011’s ‘Surry Hills’ EP, in which whirring warmth and a sun-dappled shuffling of approaches gave their music the vivid craft of a beautiful set of handmade holiday postcards). The band have even returned to those pluck/build/fuzz/hallucinate ingredients I’ve just been savaging, and there’s less of the generous instrument-swapping that’s freshened their approach in the past.

In spite of this, Apricot Rail manage to avoid drabness and predictability. Basket Press is a five-minute garland of distinct and graceful stages. Part summery harvest-time music, part rippling classical suite, part affectionate conversation, it’s bound together with a palpable friendliness. First there’s a lone guitar sketching out slow American-folk arpeggios with a touch of echo (the chords, save for one crucial falling note, reworking the floating Pink Floyd melancholia of Us And Them). Then, as woodwind player Mayuka airs a fuzzy flute trail of sustained notes, there are three. Guitarists Ambrose, Jack and Justin strum, curl and gently chisel out firmer chords over a cosy fuss of drums, as if they were rounding off a carved scroll. From this, a move to that on-the-one post-rock downstrum – then, as two guitars mix a light picking of melody with pinging counter harmonics, Mayuka’s flute wakes into a twining, rising counterpoint. Bass and drums move in via a low dotting – a patter, and a dialogue.

All along, the feeling is of a mutual binding, of teamwork, all six musicians facing inwards to share the exchange. The music slips through phases like breathing, like the momentum of thoughts; like assured working hands shifting their grip on a gardening hoe. A rare and understated joy wells through it, passing hints. In many respects, all of this is moving to a similar pulse as that mid-’70s sweep of world-folk and chamber-jazz melanged into being by Paul McCandless, Ralph Towner and their colleagues in Oregon. As the lowest-pitched guitar stirs a new folkier rhythm into the band circle, Mayuka responds with sweet McCandless-esque clarinet curves. Upping the ante, a detailed guitar study – a Mediterranean sparkle – works its way in over rising supportive drums. Another guitar, sitting in the mid-register, embroiders sweet minimal rosettes of lazy cycling notes.

Eventually the band builds through a mass of roaring pedalwork and noise into the kind of land-sliding, sleeting mass of guitar-descend which we’re used to as that conclusive Mogwai-tradition flourish. This time, though: it’s been prepared for. Rather than the expected ragged glory of a ruined Sysiphus-bound downwards into gravity’s clutches, it’s a payoff – a burst of energy from what the musicians have put into the song and stored there.

For the curious – a basket press is a wine-making device, one used for over a thousand years. I can see the connection. Harvest arrives.

Apricot Rail: ‘Basket Press’
Hidden Shoals Recordings (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single
Released: 10th January 2013

Buy it from:
Bandcamp

Apricot Rail online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace Bandcamp LastFM

Mini-album reviews – Sterbus: ‘Smash The Sun Alight’ (“like a prog-dusted bumblebee”)

20 Nov
Sterbus: ‘Smash The Sun Alight’

Sterbus: ‘Smash The Sun Alight’

After six years of making off-kilter indie rock, Sterbus seems ready to make the jump from cult to cute. His previous albums and EPs have shuffled between serious tunes, determined explorations and playful jokes. ‘Smash The Sun Alight’ concentrates firmly on his most accessible side – fuzzy, funny-angled guitar pop launched into a chunky meander through the air, like a prog-dusted bumblebee.

If these seven songs and instrumentals had a colour, it would be orange-gold – blurry and amiable. Sterbus injects sunshine and smog from his native Rome straight into the heart of his rampant, time-travelling pop. One of his feet might be jammed happily into a big bucket of prog and psychedelia; the other’s rooted deeply in power pop and eclectic 1990s indie, with driving earworm-bursts of chorus. In his twists of tunefulness and humour and his love of scruffy noise, you can see traces of Blur, Small Faces and XTC (or, looking further west, Weezer, Steve Malkmus and Guided By Voices). Sterbus also has an ear for those drowsy, medicated-modal melodies that served Nirvana so well; and the dogged musical extravagance of Cardiacs infests his work like a glittering spiral, turning every tune into a hopeful steeplechase of extra chords and whole-tone hops.

It’s hardly straightforward; yet somehow Sterbus doesn’t overdo it and lose you along the way. It’s rare to hear so much bounding complexity tied up so neatly into buzzing firecrackers of song. The saturated bounce of Gay Cruise is typical of what’s on offer, kitting out a tuneful, sludgy Dinosaur Jr. fuzz-growl with some dissonant King Crimson pitches before hammering in a break of piled-up chords to grab us by the ear and take us mountaineering. The eccentric Welsh popster Curig Pongle is along for the ride, playing organ like a swerving Mini: the song also sideswipes a random Andy Partridge sample in which the great man is gurning on about Arthur Askey.

As for Sterbus’ lyrics, they’re a vegetable stew of soft little fragments. The occasional clear phrase bubbles up out of the gentle mumble and hum – uneasy (“troubles in the pool / making me cold”), tender (“My dear baby, what can I do? / You make me feel like I’ve been over-ruled,”) or whimsical (“Unboyfriendable girlies show no love”). Occasionally a skewed aphoristic image surfaces, like something cast up by a young Peter Blegvad (“Birds and second wives, / trying to be polite.”). Much of the time, though, the stew remains a stew, the language dissolved into flavours rather than shapes.

In some songs, such as the ukele-driven A Sigh of Relief, it’s not so much English as an impression of English; just as Sterbus’ breezy mouth-trombone solo and music-hall-McCartney bassline is a sepia impression of holidays in fading seaside resorts. Maybe he knows that songs of life, love and feeling can work just as well as gauzy murmurs. Perhaps it’s just a chewing-over of words to blend into an earnest, reassuring blur – a swirl of cream to smooth the mongrel clamberings of the music.

Oh well, perhaps innocence can be complicated too. That’s why those Irish fiddle parts are there to usher in Otorinolaringoiatria, unless they’re there to soothe us after the tongue-twister (and to stop us wondering why the only distinct word in the song is “sauerkraut”). That’s why You Can’t Be Sirius is tied up like a Sunday roast – its laddering chords held together by tight power-pop drumming, lashing those goosed leaps of organ into position, securing those shivering tremolo-blocks and speaker-fizzes of guitar.

That’s also why Wooden Spheres + Heartquakes plays its pass-the-parcel game. A pelting punk-pop three-chord wonder abruptly switches to Curtis Mayfield funk with sunny popcore punk choruses; then, after changing gear for the tiniest of organ solos, ends up jammed and droning like a stuck tide of Scandinavian prog. Similar in its out-and-out playfulness is The Amazing Frozen Yogurt: setting power chords against breezy mellowness, it sounds like a summery merge of Caravan and The Wildhearts. Lonnie Shetter’s sheets-of-sound sax scribble is flown in for a jolt, offsetting that mid-song switch into Zappa kitsch complete with vibraphone. Sterbus flutters around both parody and self-parody here, but his freshness steers him clear.

The near-seven minutes of Flatworms (Eggs Of Joy) tie together not just Sterbus’ musical agility and bevy of influences, but also his sense of connection. Away from the sung sections, it owes something to the severe angles of King Crimson’s Red; yet it’s also the most Cardiacs-styled piece on offer: a self-confessed attempt to write a sequel to that band’s Dirty Boy (which Sterbus has already covered) and its massive parade of chords. Sterbus’ drowsy vocals soften the cavalcade; the brief flashes of conga draw a little nourishing groove into it. While the lyrics are as obscure as anything else in this clutch of songs, they get the message of impermanence and humbling across. “Running away – far from heaven, / diggin’ the grave, the sun. / Crying away – all your glory; / useless and vain, in time.” It might be an oblique gesture of fellow feeling towards Tim Smith, Cardiacs stricken leader. Certainly, the song’s payoff line casts aside any artifice in favour of the purest sympathy ( “I see you, / I feel you. /You heal me. / Uncomplicated ways.”) and brings the inclusive generosity at the heart of Sterbus’ music to a natural home.

Nothing to be afraid of. Sun’s out. Come and warm yourself.

Sterbus: ‘Smash The Sun Alight’
Sterbus (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only mini-album
Released: 16th November 2012

Get it from:
Bandcamp.

Artist online:
Facebook MySpace Bandcamp Last FM YouTube

REVIEW – Dutch Uncles: ‘Fester’ single, 2012 (“a butter-toffee in a world of cheap smokes”)

26 Oct

Dutch Uncles: 'Fester'

Dutch Uncles: ‘Fester’


That’s a repulsive title for a single. Then again, Dutch Uncles have always been something of an irritant. I mean that in a good way, as it happens. Some of my favourite bands are irritants. Too many bands just want to be stimulants – crude and obvious, they roar in with a snort and a thump, hammering hard on the most obvious buttons. After a while, you just need more and more of it to elicit even a small buzz, and you end up bored and bloated.

An irritant, on the other hand – that does its job of stirring up a reaction in a different way. You can’t ignore it. It focuses the attention, often by making you aware of sensitivities that you didn’t even know you had. Dutch Uncles have always been happy to spike the necessary nerve and keep feeding a pulse into it. If you’re familiar with those dancing, sidestepping cycles of guitar riff which festooned and hiccuped all over their earlier singles (Fragrant, The Ink, Face In) then Fester will sound halfway familiar. If you persuaded Steve Reich to write around eleven Disco Phases, then stacked them up on top of each other, you’d have the basic bones already. It rotates like a carousel full of drunk mathematicians, with Duncan Wallis’ warm alto hoot (still a butter-toffee in a world of cheap smokes) muttering and musing atop the pile.

What’s new for Dutch Uncles is a delightful infusion of art-rock colourings – that bass guitar which thunks like a piano; that bony clink of marimba hook; the guitar which blows and bloozes like a sleepy horn solo. There’s a delicious feeling of confusion and clothes-swapping wrapped into the song: it’s reminiscent of early Roxy Music and their upsetting of texture, of the otherworldly kink of Associates. With Duncan’s tone of repressed and airy hysteria, there’s also got something of the closeted wildness of Sparks (albeit in one of their mellower moods). Dutch Uncles have that nervy theatrical cleverness to them, as if they’re delicately stepping along a rail with ideas dropping out of their pockets and with tell-tales twitching at the corners of their eyes.

I mentioned a song, didn’t I? It’s built into the jittery mosaic of instruments; and it’s a protest, of sorts. “There’s a time to hide everything – the way that you are; where you’ve been. / And the feeling I’ve tried to fight, / pieces I’m left in inside.” In a genteel way, Duncan’s pissed off; chanting “takes me to the bone” as he swats, distractedly, at a lingering pain. Fractured syntax dribbling in his wake, he argues his position and tells his story like a hungover man struggling with a jigsaw. “And the times you cry at everything / for reasons we don’t mean anything. / And the times I hide behind a smile / that says you were right, you were always right.” By the end of his efforts, he’s trying to strip-mine his way into sense by plunging headlong into tongue-twisters (“The worst is hardly, hardly known, / I trust the worst is hard to know. / The worst is hardly, hardly known, / I know the worst is hard to know,”) as the band pound delicately around him. Irritation confuses, scatters against structure: but few things are better at making you feel.

Dutch Uncles: ‘Fester’
Memphis Industries, MI0250D/MI0250S
vinyl 7″/download single
released: 20th September (download) & 12th November (vinyl) 2012

Buy it from:
Memphis Industries (vinyl); Dutch Uncles homepage
or Memphis Industries news page (download)

Dutch Uncles online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace

Album reviews – Lee Fletcher: ‘Faith In Worthless Things’ (“rich and delicate”)

7 Oct
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

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