Tag Archives: subtle ache

REVIEW – no-man: ‘Carolina Skeletons’ EP, 1998 (“loaded with meaning, swollen thick with suppressed tears”)

9 May

They claim it as “a totally new approach” for the band, but thankfully, this time they’re wrong. After the diverse experimentation of the ‘Wild Opera’ and ‘Dry Cleaning Ray’ albums, it’s more of a look back to their roots in the deceptively simple, poignant flush of ambiguous romance. no-man are going home. And as they do, this falls – as if from a worn-out pocket – into our hands.

Carolina Skeletons could just be the finest single no-man have ever released. A rhythm track like a weary hubcap rolling its way home; Steve Wilson’s lovelorn, restrained piano and sleepy, teary guitar touches. A simple, unchanging dynamic evoking both a state of grace and a state of stagnation. A set of chords that fall, question and resolve – heartbreakingly – around Tim Bowness’ quietly yearning vocal. A distant almost inaudible organ, hovering like a night scent. And a short glimpse of a few moments of a trapped life.

It’s a snapshot of a lonely woman paralysed by inertia, watching as time “strips the tinsel from her hair” and the mingled forces of gravity and grief tug her down. It has the same sketch-like quality of American Music Club or The Blue Nile – a few lines loaded with meaning, swollen thick with the suppressed tears – and breathes out, with its eyes closed, the same ineffably bruised air as Mark Hollis’ melancholy reveries. You get a feeling that for its solitary anti-heroine, Cowboy Kate, time is slowing but history has already halted.

So much for the lead track. But the whole EP shivers with an underlying, understated tension; the sort of slight ache that nags and means that at best only a flawed and brittle peace is possible. Caught up in the acoustic guitar webbing of Something Falls, Tim’s words are entangled and shivering in the anticipation of a shock to come: “You’re far too near it to feel it… / You’re far too near it to fear it…”

In Close Your Eyes (a swoonier, more grace-inspired take on their old Desert Heart epic) Mellotron strings hover near or retreat over rolling slot-drums: elegant stalkers on the uppers of their nerves. Twinkles and illuminations come and go like soft offshore lights – halfway through a guitar screams alone in the middle distance. Caressed, Tim sings a beatific, burnished chorus while the verses hint at love, violence and dependency: “His hands were hard, your face was soft. / He kissed your heavy head – and then you lost your strength…” It ends on a poised and prolonged outbreath, with Tim wailing passionately into the void up ahead: “You break, you swim alone, like a child…”

To close – a reverberant, distant, Budd-like reprise of the Carolina piano line in all of its beautiful worn-down dignity. The dust blows forward and the dust blows back. Sometimes all there is to do is to carry on, face set to the wind and tears stroked back towards where you’ve come from. Beautiful.

no-man: ‘Carolina Skeletons’
3rd Stone Ltd., STONE037CD (5023693003757)
CD-only EP
Released: 1998

Get it from:
Best obtained second-hand. The title track (and a different version of Close Your Eyes) ended up on no-man‘s ‘Returning Jesus’ album in 2001: all of the EP tracks were also reissued on the triple-vinyl release of ‘Returning Jesus (The Complete Sessions)’ in 2006.

No-Man online:
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CONCERT REVIEW – The Cox Cruise @ MV King Arthur, floating along the River Severn, Gloucestershire, early summer 2004 (featuring Earnest Cox, Ghosting, Charlie Says, Michael J. Sheehy & Paddy McCarthy of St Silas Intercession, Datapuddle) (“a self-propelled music bash”)

10 Apr

All we can see outside in the dark are moving, ghostly fronds – foliage bleached by the passing light spilling from our boat, nodding in the gusting winds above the lap of water. We’re on the river at night. We can’t see where we’re going, and we’ve entrusted our safety to a group of people with the seedy, ingratiating collective name of Earnest Cox. Things look bleak.

“It’s ‘Nam, man!” some joker screams suddenly. “Charlie’s out there, and he don’t surf! We’re all gonna die, man!”

He’s greeted by laughter. It’s all far, far too English for any of that: those nodding leaves we’re passing are in quiet Gloucestershire, and the River Severn isn’t winding us towards the heart of darkness… not unless Bristol’s having a really bad Saturday night. The double-decker boat we’re riding – the MV King Arthur – has been hired from the National Waterways Museum, and in under four hours we’ll have looped back to its safe berth in Gloucester. On the way, we’ll be enjoying a self-propelled music bash featuring the aforementioned Coxers and a little circle of related bands from Gloucester and London. There’s even a raffle. Cosy.

Had we set out a little earlier in the summer, and during the day, it would have been picnics and beer all round by now. As the red and gold lights of a jolly riverside pub bob past like a luminous Johnny Walker bottle, it’s clear that any actual weirdness will need to be handled by the bands. Crammed onto chairs on the makeshift band stage wedged into the top deck, Datapuddle do what they can. Alex Vald (who once played filthy guitar for Dream City Film Club) cradles an electric mandolin across his chest like a sulking cat. When not distractedly plucking and strumming at it as if he were plucking a chicken, his hands dart restlessly towards a litter of electronic gizmos on a table: a virtual theremin, a cheap sequencer, a plastic voice-changer and other bits of toy-box guts. Stephen Huddle plays sketchy acoustic guitar and pushes broken murmurs and mumbles of song up into Alex’s cobwebs of sound.

Datapuddle at The Cox Cruise

Datapuddle at The Cox Cruise

What ultimately emerges is a lo-fi cat’s-cradle of strung-together and slightly strung-out elements. Tidal dub; debris and dusty notes swept out of an Irish-American bar; bits of memory and reaction scattered like dandruff – all glued by static electricity and misfiring synapse energy to the guitar strings of a long-fried singer-songwriter. “Here’s a little sea shanty,” says Stephen brightly. A water-blip of electronics merges with a Lloyd Cole chug of guitar, rocking it on its rhythmic base. Alex buzzes a harmonica into an overlapping backwards loop, transforming it into a reversed melodica.

On the next song, trip-hop snare-drum smoke merges with psychedelic space whisper like the first skunked-out collision between Portishead and Hawkwind. Alex’s mandolin maintains a relentless, disappearing clang like a freight train bell, while Stephen mutters like Tom Waits ruffled from deep sleep. Peril – another shaggy-dog shanty written especially for tonight – namechecks the Severn amidst its steam-train chunter of knocks, old-school electro breaks, and harmonica rasps. “Don’t buy the brown acid,” Stephen sings, channelling up the confusion of a different party as ours sways cheerfully along the river.

Datapuddle come to a purring end with lashings of electric theremin wibble and a lengthy musical chew on a genuine melodica which has surfaced from their box of battered goodies. Watching them was like watching someone scrabble a shack together out of estuary trash and flotsam. In its way, it was just as raw and triumphant.

Paddy McCarthy & Michael J. Sheehy at The Cox Cruise.

Paddy McCarthy & Michael J. Sheehy at The Cox Cruise.

While the upstairs audience return to conversation and shore-spotting, Michael J. Sheehy and Paddy McCarthy are down below decks mopping up the leftovers (along with any beer that’s available). Cuddling a pair of honey-blonde acoustic guitars, the brothers from St Silas Intercession (and, previously, Dream City Film Club) have wedged themselves into a corner to hammer out rough’n’ready London-Irish punk blues as brutal as paving stones and hard-luck sneers. Eventually they’re joined by a wandering harmonica player and by a growing crowd of boozy party stragglers. Before too long, the corner turns into an enthusiastic trash-music shebeen (staggered over the changeover times between the acts upstairs) during which everyone’s treated to rattling, spat-out’n’spattered takes of the songs from the debut St Silas EP, starting with the vicious roar of You Don’t Live Here Anymore.

St Silas Intercession’s music is a London echo of the brutally direct and bluesy garage noise still spilling out of Detroit (and all of the little Detroits that have sprung up in the wake of Jack White or The Dirtbombs). Venomous as a dirty flick-knife and as blunt as masonry nails, it’s some way down the evolutionary tree from the corrupted sophistication of Sheehy’s recent songwriter albums, or even from the trawling sleaze of his old work with Dream City Film Club. Obviously the man himself couldn’t give a shit about all that: judging by the twinkle in his eyes and in Paddy’s, as they face each other off over sprawling riffs and hollers, they’ve rarely been happier with their music than now.

Paddy McCarthy at The Cox Cruise.

Paddy McCarthy at The Cox Cruise.

The brute-blues meanness of Get My Share has a good hard whiskey sting to it; as does the defiance of Caravan Rock (“me and my kids and their mum, / living in a caravan, moving on, moving on…”). A lacerating spurt through All About The Money sets people bobbing, scrambling and bouncing as well as a seven-and-a-half foot deck ceiling will allow. But as Paddy’s permanent goofy cartoon grin indicates, the St Silas brothers never take themselves too seriously. “It’s always about the money!” Michael protests, through a cheap megaphone. His voice suddenly jumps tracks from Louisiana bawl back through his London grit to an ‘EastEnders’ stage-Cockney. “You sla-a-a-g!”

Back upstairs, a dirty blonde in a cute plush cap is hammering a comradely nail into Mr Sheehy’s coffin. “Michael slags me off in his songs, and I slag him off in my songs,” explains Charlie Beddoes. Then she bowls us the rapaciously scornful putdowns of Vitriolic Alcoholic which kerb-kicks a snarling addict with a series of offhanded verbal wallops, culminating in “do I look like I give a toss? / It’s not my problem, not my loss.” It’s good to have friends.

The determined, diminutive Charlie is both the figurehead and the core of the shifting cult-of-personality that calls itself Charlie Says. Tonight, they’re three boot-babes and a moll-boy. Backed up by sidekick Ben Fisher’s car-crash guitar and by Lian and Kim Warmington’s ice-diva backing vocals and cool basilisk stares, Charlie plucks a remarkably articulate bass, sings like a breezeblock with lipstick and thuds out middle-weight girlpunk. Not short of charisma, Charlie holds the audience in the palm of her hand. The trouble is, she then rolls them around as if she doesn’t quite know what to do with them.

There’s a big difference between true punk and mere punk-ertainment, and Charlie Says wander a bit too close to the latter end of the scale. While Charlie’s former background in hip-hop art-rockers Rub Ultra is promising, discovering that both she and Ben are recent refugees from the touring band of tech-rocker Martin Grech pokes some suspicious holes in their lo-fi rebel stance. It just makes their music seem a little contrived. Not that the songs always help: It’s All About The Music is just another me-and-my guitar anthem, and Hey Leadfinger, Why You Gotta Keep Putting Me Down? is a foray into garage-blues which is far less interesting than its title is.

What pulls the band up out of fun-punk poseur-world are Charlie’s bright flickers of blunt humour and determination. The girlpower swagger of Venus Envy suddenly flings out “if the balls are in our court, then at least we have some,” while This Is Not My Story claims “whichever way it lands, my heart will keep on beating.” Little gems of lead-pipe wit and guts like this are what will make Charlie Says special; not desperate attempts to hitch onto whichever punk or garage soul flits past next. For the rest of the evening, I see Charlie perched here and there around the boat – beaming with life, always as if on the verge of delivering another breezy wisecrack. Let’s have more of that.

For all their efforts, Charlie Says don’t make me want to riot. Ghosting do… but I’d be rioting on their behalf. Five more minutes of hearing boozy party blabber drown out their beautiful, beautiful songs and I’d be flinging bottles around myself. Ghosting are heartbreakingly soft – as vulnerable and resilient as fresh grass bending underfoot. Unlike any other band this evening, they create little pockets of pure songcraft which you need to crane your head into to find out what’s going on.

Upfront, Dan Pierce picks out gentle acoustic guitar arpeggios which ride up into the atmosphere like thermals, and lets his voice follow suit. In the corner, wedged into a little cage of half-drumkit, laptop and miniature keyboard, George Moorey handles the rest. Intent and anxious-looking, he peers at his screen like a nervy microbiologist watching a virus proliferate. In fact, he’s just making sure that the sounds arrive on time – making tiny triggering adjustments to a mouse, reaching out one hand to roll off a gentle peal of Blue Nile piano, or swivelling to make precise soft taps on cymbal and snare with the single drumstick he holds in his other hand. It’s like watching someone play a one-man-band suit and conduct an orchestra at the same time. Yet even more impressive than this deft and diffident juggling act are the way Ghosting’s songs pool in the atmosphere – gradually, quietly filling up the space.

Dan’s big genial frame contains a songwriter’s spirit of rare and seductive delicacy. Faced with a chattering crowd, he simply shifts his guitar in his hands and sings soft, warm and open… and slowly the chatter drains away as the spell begins to work. Gently, Ghosting explore topics spanning all the way from frayed love songs (Your Love Don’t Make Sense) through thoughtful disillusion all the way to ending up being fingered as a murder suspect (Someone At The Door). Hopefully not as a natural progression – but if it was, you’d suspect that they’d’ve illustrated even that story with colossal and convincing sensitivity.

By the time Ghosting are midway through the exquisite, naked plea of I Want You To See Me, the crowd is hushed and half of them are hooked. Dan’s flexible and heartfelt singing – mostly a feather on tremulous breath, but rising to a swoony peak of intensity – sometimes recalls Mike Scott or Robert Forster at their very softest. In a fey, English, breathy way, he even has flashes of the fluttering abandonment of a Van Morrison or an Aaron Neville. Like them, he’s singing songs of real people grasping out at the intangible – unsure of what to believe on Anything That Might Be True, or “waiting for the one thing which really might have been some help,” on Good Year, only to wait in vain. Intangible desires, tangible heartaches. They’ll probably rise like damp rather than rockets, but I suspect that within a few years Ghosting will be very important to a lot of people.

Having put the whole cruise together in the first place, Earnest Cox get a well-deserved heroes’ welcome once they arrive onstage. They respond with perhaps their most energetic and assured set to date. It’s the third or fourth time I’ve caught the Cox, over a time when I’ve watched their sturdy intelligence getting to grips with lacing together their multiple influences. It’s taken a while for their mixture of old Memphis R’n’B, ’60s lad-rock, ’80s indie textures and prowling street poetry to gel.

Tonight it does with a vengeance. Hello Stranger sweeps out of the gate with a swagger of rogue testosterone coupled with a smart and beady eye, as Cox singer La Windo immediately takes on the audience with his particular blend of strut and twice-burned wariness. Perhaps it’s recent honeymoon rejuvenations or perhaps it’s the side effects of squabbling over their current recordings, but Earnest Cox are smouldering tonight. Still looking like a disparate houseful of mature students (the band’s a bewildering range of types from motherly to mysterious, from rogue to stockbroker) they continue to draw on what’s in them already rather than trying to squeeze themselves into an image.

The rhythm section used to be little more than agreeably white’n’slightly-funky: now it’s moving towards a lubricious slippery groove, with bass player/occasional MC Simon abandoning cheese and cheeriness to join drummer Shane in seriously flexing the pocket. Nicola parachutes in flights of piano, springs of Booker T. Hammond organ or splurges of synth when she needs to, while Marc buries himself in the middle of the band, cooking up lightly-textured mats of funky guitar texture to fly blurs across the gaps.

Up front, where you’d expect to find a preening Rod Stewart lookalike, La continues to prowl like a Gloucester merging of Shaun Ryder and Lou Reed, delivering his narratives of edgy small-town life like the most restless man in the pub and shaking his percussion as if testing the heft of a throwing knife. He looks pretty handy: yet the Cox don’t exactly trade on casual violence, even when La hurls out scathing fighting talk on You’re Not Fit To Lick (The Shit From My Shoes).

Rather, they seize on restlessness in general, whether it’s randiness, boredom, the unease as your parents age towards death, or the bumps in love’s road. There’s swagger, vengeance and one-upmanship aplenty in songs like Two Can Play At That Game, Baby and Scratching The Same Old Itch: yet in spite of this Earnest Cox’s songs are about survival if they’re about anything. No More Happy Endings treads the ashes of hopes and securities with the dogged, battered trudge of someone who’s had the knocks, has sagged, but won’t go down yet.

The Cox’s musical cockiness almost makes them part of that line of lad’s bands dipping in and out of pubs, taverns and speakeasys (and finally Royal Command performances). Yet the way the bruises on the songs never entirely fade (and the way that La quietly retreats into himself, gaze distracted, mid-song) hints at a band who’ve accepted, even embraced, the dragging baggage of personal history rather than saturating themselves in adolescent posing. Marc’s refusal to play the role of the strutting guitar stud (keeping his back almost entirely turned to La and the audience as he brews up his noises) confirms it and heightens the internal dignity beyond the Cox’s miscellaneous looks.

Perhaps it’s this mixture of getting by, getting on and getting on with it even within limited horizons that makes Earnest Cox local heroes on the Gloucester scene. The familiar tastes of that stew of pop ingredients they serve it up with, plus their band’s anti-glorious English universality and their bumpy everyman charisma should win them friends around the country, whether or not they bring their boat with them.

As the Cox set hits its climax, we look up and find ourselves back in the Gloucester lock. Hometime, Charlie.

Datapuddle online:
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Michael J. Sheehy online:
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Miraculous Mule (what Sheehy/McCarthy/St Silas Intercession did next) online:
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Charlie Says online:
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Ghosting online:
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Earnest Cox online:
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MV King Arthur online:
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REVIEW – Pale Boy: ‘Pale Boy’ album, 2000 (“transparent as blown newsprint”)

6 Jun
Pale Boy: 'Pale Boy'

Pale Boy: ‘Pale Boy’

Apparently what fires Seth Geltman up is Astor Piazolla – fiery, complex, challenging music, stirring feet into instinctive dance. But it’s a stiller, smaller flame that Piazolla has lit in Geltman’s heart. His own songwriting is a more reserved thing altogether. You could compare what Seth Geltman and Thomas Blomster do with Pale Boy to what Stephen Merritt does with Magnetic Fields: “from the brain straight through the heart – the shortest distance”, as Geltman puts it.

Although not as accessible (or Broadway-bound) as Merritt’s, Geltman’s songwriting is similarly sophisticated. It’s cerebral, and sometimes difficult for ears attuned to pure pop. Dark closeted harmonies abound; melodies fade into shadowy doubts rather than aspiring. An air of introversion and dry, wounded carefulness is always present. If Spice Girls had Geltman’s number, they wouldn’t call it. If Stephen Sondheim had it, he might.

Pale Boy’s delicate and mannered debut is loaded with thought and detail. Life is constantly being breathed in by Blomster’s exquisite arrangements: a chamber-orchestra palette of fluttering jazz and flamenco guitars, violins, reeds and brass plus Blomster’s own piano, ever-crisp drumming and knack for tuned percussion. Drawing on latter-day classical, jazz, and the area where the two blend together, this is music fleshed out with the same kind of light, miniaturist detail as Penguin Cafe Orchestra. Seth handles most of the singing himself – his light bloodless voice as untouchable and inflection-free as Leonard Cohen’s and as transparent as blown newsprint.

Although Pale Boy are Denver-based, their spiritual home is European – either an autumnal and imaginary Paris of skating rinks, cafe culture and falling leaves, or the ascerbic Germany that Brecht and Weil knew. Or, perhaps, a hundred points between Moscow and San Francisco where dispossessed Old Worlders with shabby coats and battered instrument cases laid down their baggage and played for a while… Think that. Then factor in a touch of Smog, with trailer parks, shitty hotels and bad teeth replaced by faded, once-grand apartments and battered books. That nails the Pale Boy world as closely as anything.

The other occasional touchstone is Love’s ‘Forever Changes’ – intricate folk strumming, surging orchestras, and dreamy heads running up against barriers. Just A Thought (in which Seth, up to his knees in toil, casts his mind free over slinking brass and woodwind) hints at Aloneagainor in its mingled innocence and frustration – “There’s so much more than the grind every day – / there’s the blue, and the cats, and the letter K. / Far from the chatter and the money hunt, / there’s a thought of an autumn afternoon.”

A darker taste of Love, mingled with twelve-tone operetta, enters Promise Me, shading into a moody resignation: “Promise me obscurity / Turn out the spotlight… / Come and go but never leave. / Let me make my best guess how to ride your slippery lines, / you fleeting joking prayer.” Best of all are the sweet express-train violins, budding trumpets and John Adams throb of It’s Good, the point where Pale Boy succumb to instinct (“Over all this sprawling mess, / rising slow in the abdomen, / taking hold of what we know. / Is this another fine mess / or an opulent waltz in the wrong direction?”) and where a new note of assurance enters Seth’s voice: “Yes, it’s good. / Just sit tight, / wait for light…”

Here and everywhere in this painstakingly adult music you can sense the presence of those cracks and draughts which betray us each time we succumb to the unexpected currents and shamings that toy with stable lives and clean ambitions. “Facts march all over an ordinary day / Paper’s got nothing to say except scandals, sports, atrocities… / Scattered friction everywhere.” The understated title track might bury itself under a forgettable melody, but its vivid lyric (of lost directions, of a hectoring young man engulfed by a stifling fence) penetrates deeper. Acrobat is cutting and unforgiving, a bored audience turning away from a “gaudy little crackpot showing off with all his might” and ignoring him as he heads into his fatal fall. Bossa-nova and muted brass line the music of October Hat, a surreal ballet of a song in which one scribbled sonnet, lost to the sea, signifies one man’s misdirected attempt to capture and circumscribe the sense of his own life.

“Well, you made your point, / and the only audience that mattered never showed up” Geltman murmurs pointedly on Hum In The Clouds. Storm-tossed lounge jazz rolls around him, wrestling with a Reich-ian xylophone, and the debris of divorce bangs into both. “What did you think would happen? Why did you leave so soon? / Do you know how much was missed and lost on those Saturday afternoons?” Throughout the record, mixed feelings and shifting views struggle for dominance; as in Wearing Your Time Out, when patient drudgery gives way to “the corner of your eye / going suddenly awry / after getting lost on lines of reason.”

This ambiguity is best caught in the trio of songs sung by Jeana Dodge. Her restrained classical soprano lends them an affectingly uptight and anxious yearning. The light, mournful marriage waltz of Almost illustrates profoundly thankful love, yet ever-so-slightly sullied by restlessness and defensiveness – “Almost a connection that couldn’t exist. / Almost all I need to subsist.” On Underside Of A Terrible Thought, an unspecified angst is picked apart with determination, disgust and fascination – “Hold it high in the muddy light… / Hold your nose and hold it very tight… / It warms your brain and quickens your blood… / this twisted tangled orphan.” The polite cadences and lullaby-vibraphone of All We’re Left With show compressed resentment seeping from the civilised rubble of a relationship – “Kept my patience, bought the flowers, went to college, put out fires… / brought home bacon, / scrubbed the windows… / and I followed the rules.”

Less successful are attempts at straightforward anger, which only sap Pale Boy of both spirit and tunes. I Hate You greys out into dull minimalism (in spite of precise, venomous lyrics (and Blomster’s poignant arrangement of funeral reeds), and while Ton Of Blue gropes at the lovelorn existential dread of the deepest blues, it only ends up sulking, morose and snappish, in its conservatoire setting. No – Pale Boy’s understated emotions fare better with  subtler, yet more complex  bonds and empathies. An endearing, awkward eroticism nibbles at the floating, detached spring-dream of Shy Beast. The wistful, tear-jerking strings and muffled brass of I Know What You’re Thinking make it a Scott Walker fall-apart thing. Here, Seth singing at his gentlest. “I know you’ve been drinking / from the oldest hope that ever was. Rising up through your spine, / flowing through the brain and through the heart, the part glowing… / And I know what you’re thinking – / ‘Get me through this jagged night’.”

At the end, Stay Hidden makes a quiet and wary bid for intimacy, with Seth pursuing truth with all the extra senses of the once-bitten. “It leaks its news through unsuspecting clues, / it lies in wait for all of us.” By this time, those cracks and gaps have been assuaged by something. Perhaps it was the still, small sound of a hopeful trumpet. This album’s not for everyone; but if you’ve silently burned, quietly frayed or seen something dear to you stretch out of your gentle grasp, it’ll strike up a little chord in you.

Pale Boy: ‘Pale Boy’
Kale Music, ERG82299 (no barcode)
CD-only album
Released: 18th April 2000

Buy it from:
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Pale Boy (Seth Geltman) online:
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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:
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