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.
Unsung Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
Released: 10th June 2013
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