Tag Archives: The Sea Nymphs

April 2020 – EP reviews – MUMMY/Babyskullz/Mikrokosmos – ‘CONFINEMENT/release1’ (“the triumph of love over fear and torpor”)

10 Apr

Family. Extended. Play. For life partners Jo Spratley (she of Spratleys Japs) and the elusive/ubiquitous Christian Hayes, a.k.a. Bic (who’s played howling, whirling, stuttering textural/post-punk/psych guitars for Dark Star, Cardiacs and Levitation, as well as adding extra noisy or unearthly touchs to projects by Julianne Regan, Heidi Berry and Pet Shop Boys) – plus Jo’s son Jesse Cutts (Spratleys Japs bass player and Heavy Lamb mainstay) – coronavirus lockdown is providing an opportunity to get their musical lives in better order.

M U M M Y/Babyskullz/Mikrokosmos: 'CONFINEMENT​/_release1'

M U M M Y/Babyskullz/Mikrokosmos: ‘CONFINEMENT​/_release1’

Being stuck at home on the Sussex coast means the initiation of the Confinement Tapes. They’re unearthing sundry old recordings from hard drives, biscuit tins, gutted harmoniums or wherever else they may have stashed or forgotten them. They’re polishing them up, and getting them out into the world, while simultaneously raising a bit of money for the ongoing care of various ailing Cardiacs members. (All cash raised from this is going into the support funds for Tims Smith and Quy, as well as the recently beset Jon Poole – if you want to save the Confinementeers a bit of trouble, you can always donate directly via the latter links and just download this lot for free afterwards).

Clearly the Confinementeers see this as something of a resurrection – Jo, in particular, has kept a very low profile for the past year (despite the Spratleys’ triumphant return to action in 2016) and for the past decade or so Bic has been more noted for low-key backups within (or behind) other people’s projects, rather than his own. In their Bandcamp text, they make metaphorical allusions to pregnancy and labour, to inward journeys, the delivery – in all senses – of a new world, and the renewal of loving connections. In many respects, what they actually seem to be talking about is the triumph of love over fear and torpor, and the way in which music embraces and enables this. What you get as this process begins is a window onto the particular, vivid field of English psychedelia which the Confinementeers belong to, both separately and together, and the sense of rootedness and inspiration which offsets emotional paralysis and impels action. I guess that that’s one of the reasons why the first Confinement release is a trio of cover versions – drawing on inspirations and altered perspectives both English and American, and on the soothings, sympathy and compassion behind apparent nonsense and weirdness; and then providing their own synthesis.

Microkosmos is Bic on his own. I could argue that Bic’s work reached a luminous plateau during the short brooding mid-‘90s life of Dark Star (with their atmospheric tales of vision casualties and burnout cases) but he’d be entitled to argue back. Since then, he’s put out three Mikrocosmos albums – scattered meditative space-dust to Dark Star’s supernova, they shucked off the full-band musculature and had Bic revelling in wan-boy spindliness and a ghostly tenderness. In fact, Mikrokosmos both post- and pre-dates Dark Star. This EP’s echoey cover of Pink Floyd’s Matilda Mother dates back to half-forgotten tapes from 1993, when Bic lived and recorded in London’s skinniest house. It’s pretty much a note-for-note cover: while the fey precision of Syd Barrett’s tones have been replaced by Bic’s drowsy starveling keen (and the Floyd’s pattering remnants of beat-band rhythms have been replaced by drumless harmonium roll and wasp-buzzing noise effects), the melting sleepiness and neediness of the original are absolutely recaptured, from the dusky organ washes to the glissando acid harmony vocals. It’s still centred on childlike wonder, and the pang of interrupted sensation; a door-opener.


 
MUMMY is Bic with Jo. They brought out a couple of EPs three or four years ago; strange, slowed-down skeletal garage-goth songs, like the workings of a pair of fasting spiderborgs, or like a distracted feminised/de-brutalised Swans. In this 2015 outtake, they’re reworking an early Breeders song, Oh! (which also happens to share a title with a Spratleys song). The strumming spass-country feel of the original (melancholy fiddle, close-ups, and of-the-moment neophytery) is replaced by MUMMY’s use of drum machine, Gothic reverb and distant angle-grinder guitar sheeting. Jo’s abstracted alley-queen vocal, emotional but enigmatic, is also very different from Kim Deal’s just-rolled-out-of-bed slur. What can one do with the peculiar original lyric, apparently the words of an insect urging others to run and live despite overwhelming and incomprehensible perils? Relate it back to plague fears and to resilience, I reckon.


 
Babyskullz is Jo on her own: and although this is the first we’ve heard of this particular project, Abade is an eleven-year old track, so Jo’s been incubating her skulliness for a long time now. A 2009 take on a song by the Cardiacs psych-folk spinoff (and Spratleys Japs precursors) Sea Nymphs, this is the most directly familial cover on here. While the Breeders and Floyd covers may be the more familiar songs – and carry more of the psychedelic/indie kudos – this one is the most directly satisfying. Reinvented here as a trio of electronic harmonium, bossa-flavoured drum machine and throaty-to-celestial Jo chorale (punctuated by the surge of waves on Brighton beaches, and with a flurry of suspiciously Bic-ish feedback at the end), it keeps faith with the gentle walking pace and sympathy of the Sea Nymphs original. Its fractured lyric keeping step with the wounded, offering solidarity and – like Oh! – an offbeat encouragement. “And though he walks the mid-day sun / he carries his own vile dungeon around / with him and he’s of / all the more reason to be full of life, full of sound and fury. / Don’t be long, / where were we? / Where we belong.”


 

MUMMY/Babyskullz/Mikrokosmos: ‘CONFINEMENT/release1’
The Confinement Tapes, CONFINEMENT/release1
Download/streaming EP
Released: 8th April 2020
Get it from:
free or pay-what-you-like fundraising downloads from Bandcamp. (Update, 9th May 2020 – these tracks were made available in the short term and are currently unavailable – if and when they’re restored, I’ll also restore the soundclips. Other Confinement Tapes items are available in the meantime.)

MUMMY online:
Facebook Bandcamp

Babyskullz (Jo Spratley) online:
Facebook Twitter

Mikrokosmos online:
Bandcamp Last FM
 

December 1998 – live reviews – The Sea Nymphs @ The Falcon, Camden Town, London, 13th December (“a long curving wave of sea-songs, swimming keyboards, children’s play-rhymes”)

18 Dec

In reality, the music room at The Falcon is a tumbledown concrete box shoved out onto a bit of waste ground. Right now, though, we could easily imagine it transformed by our collective warmth, enwebbed with flowered arbors and the hum of big lovable insects.

This is good. The air’s alive with a warm, fireside excitement and the sound of a zillion Christmas triangles. Up on stage, Tim Smith has just flicked us one of his weird little opening-envelope smiles. Bill Drake – goateed and woolly-hatted, somewhere between pharoah and trainspotter – settles in behind his keyboards, half-in and out of the parallel universe he normally inhabits. Someone bleats like a sheep. Everyone laughs. Sarah Smith – unreservedly sexy and wholesome, like a fairytale milkmaid – readies her saxophone, smiles mischievously.

As they make a showing for the first time in years, The Sea Nymphs bring us the same sense of unguarded wonder that we’d get from watching some obscure and exquisite little beast uncurl itself from hibernation or hatch out of a chrysalis. There’s that, and there’s their uncanny ability to awaken the sort of love that I haven’t felt sweep through a concert for ages. We’re crammed in shoulder-to-shoulder – on any other day, we’d be the usual indie-rock cattle, and we’d feel it. This time, it feels more like being a step away from holding hands.

It’s as if we’re all buoyed up on a long curving wave of sea-songs, swimming keyboards, children’s play-rhymes; of twinkle-fingered piano, folk fragments, and pale running saxophones; plus Edward Lear, Edward Gorey, and all the other unguarded wistful subconscious flickers that may (or may not) inform The Sea Nymphs’ music. Somehow, they’re managing to remove the tarnish that’s caked onto the joy that we’ve almost forgotten: that straightforward joy at being alive. Because this is music that disarms and rebuilds somehow – it’s ducking aside from the panicky hurtle of London neurosis that’s going on outside, and taking us with it.

This may seem a woolly cop-out; as if I’m just burbling. The truth is that The Sea Nymphs, in work and in performance, seem to be offering a mystery of creation that doesn’t bear too much thinking about. Too much breakdown won’t break the spell – it will just ease you out of it, painlessly, like a splinter; into the cold again. And that’s something which you don’t want to happen. Within Sea-Nymphs-space, we’ve all found a place in which we very much want to be. We want to rest in the anchoring embrace of Tim’s warm and rounded basslines, to cotton on to how the querying melody-hop of Little Creations sounds like a baby making its very first connections. We want to enjoy the unselfconscious way Sarah rejoices in striking a gong, as if she was dusting a clock.

As the tipsy near-waltzes sway around the air, as Tim, Sarah and Bill’s voices twine and alternate (from naked and frayed harmonies to scratchy yelps, to impossibly sweet helium coos) we’re given the opportunity to pig out on a different kind of instinct than that triggered off by the standard lash of rebellious rock noise. There’s something baptismal in that sound – the little lilts of Shaping The River, the cries of “sponge me clean again” vaulting over a chunky acoustic strum. Maybe it’s something to do with a natural, maternal comfort. The key line of Blind In Gaiety And Leafy In Love is “she smells just like you and she smells just like me”, while Appealing To Venus stretches out a begging hand to an absent goddess, pleading “dwell among the people. / Come back to us, we need you.”

Maybe – behind the celebratory music and those rosettes of voice and exhilarated sax, lofting toward the ceiling – the vulnerable flutter at the heart of it all is the fears. Fears at the treacherous terrain of potential fuck-ups and traps, opening up like a dirty promise before newborns as they begin their blundering pilgrimages onward from birth through a childhood and adulthood of busts and confusions. “Back to square one… / large as life and twice as natural… / Let’s not reinvent the wheel; open that can of worms…”

Still. Here and now Sea Nymphs restore our openness – our willingness to ride our curiosity. For a brief time, at least, it becomes our strength again; and when, in Mr Drake’s Big Heart, the band tell us “something’s going to happen today”, we all feel as if we’re a part of it. After tonight, at the very least, we’ll have been able to say that we were together for a while, and it was good.

The Sea Nymphs online:
Homepage MySpace

The Falcon, Camden online:
Homepage

June 1998 – EP reviews – The Sea Nymphs’ ‘Appealing to Venus’ (“(they) sound as if they’ve crawled their ungainly way out of a Vincent Ward peasant odyssey of quivering, shipwrecked dreams and prayers”)

3 Jun

The Sea Nymphs: 'Appealing to Venus' EP

The Sea Nymphs: ‘Appealing to Venus’ EP

There’s something about the ‘Appealing to Venus’ EP which sounds incredibly ancient. Not dated, as such – for all its leanings towards progginess, it’s nothing passe or stilted, and any awkwardness is an integral part of the charm. No, it’s the murky timelessness and pre-tech fragility of the songs. It’s music in the trembling, bewildered nude; emerging from its shell of strength to blink in the light. To voice, in a halting manner, its own concerns, as the bright lights and brash neon of the pop scene whirl around it, uncomprehending.

Not that it’s come from nowhere. The Sea Nymphs are an (almost) acoustic alter-ego for the manically electric and intense Cardiacs: a mass of scrawny acoustic guitars, ‘Rock Bottom’ harmoniums, mellotrons and melodicas, baroque Black Death keyboards, crumhorn saxes and touchingly scratchy singing. Cardiacs’ convoluted songs have always had threads of Early Music woven into them. With The Sea Nymphs, we get to wind back along those threads and see where they lead.


 
These four tracks (salvaged from the Nymphs’ criminally ignored debut album) exorcise, or exercise, Cardiacs’ curiosity about pre-pop. You can hear old folk melodies seeping into Low Church music, shreds of sea-shanties and work-song, ramshackle European fragments existing independently of the blues or classical traditions… the bits that pop forgot, in other words. Though compared to, say, Dead Can Dance’s lordly, haughty take on Early Music, The Sea Nymphs sound as if they’ve crawled their ungainly way out of a Vincent Ward peasant odyssey of quivering, shipwrecked dreams and prayers.


 
Listening to the reedy, march-y slog of careening organs, plodding piano and parping synth on the title track, you hear a heartbreakingly wistful devotion. In the giant cathedral boom of Up in Annie’s Room, string synths smear the shuddering air around Tim’s cracked, lost, voice, swallowing it up in a churchy swamp of sound. He sounds as if he’s trying to outshout a God who’s cold and indifference to his vulnerable defiance. The mediaeval shawm-sneeze of God’s Box – fifty people on comb, paper and bells – seems lighter, The Sea Nymphs – flotsam and jetsam but its skipping ward against evil (“God’s good, the Devil is bad – he always gives me money,”) sounds ambiguous in Sarah’s blank, gauzy, little-girl vocals. “Never Setting Things on Fire, / never bad,” she sings, as if considering her options.


 
It’s left to the exquisite Shaping the River (in which a lilting falsetto choir sways, shanty-like, behind watery spangles of piano) to bring us something to warm our bared hearts. A work-song, something shared; a relationship with nature even as you alter it: “River in the middle of / Nowhere / Three of us suck on its heart, / and its head. / …Plant the heart, all from the heart / … only in the heart.”


 
The skeletal bonus tracks – lifted from even older tapes by Mr & Mrs Smith & Mr Drake (the prototype Nymphs) – pull us further into blurry pasts. There’s Bill’s gentle, bemused Camouflage, a twelve-tone sprig on Syd Barrett’s nursery-rhyme legacy. The meandering but intensely purposeful tone poem Little Creations clambers like a drunken squirrel from branch to branch, complete with manuscript rustling and equipment fumbling. Hymn rounds everything off; a live bootleg of Tim blinking over an austere organ sound, a pagan taking his first faltering steps into the chapel. These songs, too, have that unnervingly ancient-but-ageless quality; the same indefinable, painful, yet suspect innocence that haunts the songs of Robert Wyatt or Elizabeth Fraser.



 
Which all means that The Sea Nymphs are both as frail and damp as a newborn, and as old as the hills. Just listening to them pulls you back that much closer to the original greenwood, little shoots cracking their way out of your hidden memories.

The Sea Nymphs: ‘Appealing to Venus’
Org Records Ltd., ORGAN 044CD (5 028151 010445)
CD-only EP
Released:
1st June 1998
Get it from: (2020 update) Original EP best obtained second-hand. Appealing to Venus, God’s Box, Up in Annie’sRoom and Shaping the River all appear on the eponymous debut album by The Sea Nymphs (available as a download from The Alphabet Business Concern), while Little Creations and Camouflage appear on the lone eponymous album by Mr & Mrs Smith and Mr Drake. Hymn is in fact a Cardiacs song used as an early 1980s set closer: the version here was recorded at the 1984 Stonehenge Free Festival and appears nowhere else apart from on bootlegs.
The Sea Nymphs (Cardiacs) online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM Apple Music YouTube Amazon Music
 

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