Elizabeth – ‘Meander’ from ‘The Wonderful World Of Nature’ LP
Long(ish) term Unpopular readers/listeners will have heard Elizabeth Mitchell before, in her guise as part of the Melbourne group Totally Mild (four appearances on Unpopular mixes, dating back to September 2015) and I’m sure will have picked up on this first solo set with eager delight.
‘The Wonderful World Of Nature’ sees Elizabeth very much taking similar paths to those followed by Totally Mild, mining veins not dissimilar to those explored by the likes of, say, First Aid Kit and Tiny Ruins. Which is to say that it inhabits a landscape of vague melancholy and minor aching polished with a sheen of candy-coated vocals that slip over our throats like silk scarves dipped in honey. It’s all a bit like Princess Chelsea starring in a Sofia Coppola movie, and there is nothing wrong with that after all.
If we were being extraordinarily and unseasonably harsh we might suggest that for an album which carries itself at such a consistently demure pace for the entirety, ‘The Wonderful World Of Nature’ may be just a shade overlong, but this would be us being unduly picky. For really Elizabeth’s delicious voice does carry our attentions for the duration, teasing us forwards with rich timbres and easing us upwards with effortlessly soaring slights of hand.
It is never better than on the mellifluous ‘Meander’, in which Elizabeth takes us for a three minute and twenty second stroll around the river bank, holding hands, feeding ducks and wishing we were far away. Lit in a violet hour glow ‘Meander’ slinks deliciously past us in a vaguely post-Shoegaze fuzz, not unlike Drugstore shot through a diffusion filter. It’s a number that knows when to lift and when to ease and Elizabeth teases us with perfect timing. When her voice surfs up when the heat moves on you can hear the spirits evaporating in a delicious mist of pleasure. These fleeting moments we treasure and revisit in our memories. Me and her. Timeless. Priceless.
Since our 2013 reawakening to the excellence of Lloyd Cole records post-1985 it has been a fairly nailed on certainty that any new album would be welcomed with open arms; a table marked ‘Reserved’ in the Unpopular Advent series all but guaranteed. No surprise then to see ‘Guesswork’ slotting neatly into our daily episodes of reflective navel-gazing.
What is clearly a surprise to many is Mr Cole’s preference for predominantly electronic/keyboard/sequencing instrumentation on ‘Guesswork’, something that we understand many long-term ‘fans’ have voiced distaste at. It reminds us somewhat of the confusion caused when Everything But The Girl ‘went Disco’, but like that particular reference point it is something that we have found to be an unqualified success. This isn’t to say that ‘Guesswork’ is in any way an up-tempo record designed for the dancefloor, and one would certainly struggle to consider Lloyd Cole ever ‘going Disco’, but ‘Guesswork’ is a musical tangent that, whilst being stylistically audibly different to anything he’s done for a while nevertheless retains a spirit that is ineffably Cole. Perhaps it is in the overall pace of the record, which is almost uniformly downbeat and somewhat forlorn. Perhaps it is in the prose that treads the fine line between profound and excruciatingly purple (there is something in the lines about missiles, windows and a mother and child that inhabit the epic seven minute minute ‘Violins’ that feels painfully sixth form, to these ears at least). Perhaps too it is in the delivery of those lines, so laconic and world weary, so recognisably Lloyd, ready and willing to be heartbroken.
Picking out highlights feels almost insolent in a record where the flow feels so important. Each piece feels mutually supportive of the next and to the previous. Yet we find ourselves returning more often than not to ‘Night Sweats’, perhaps because it is the number that bristles most cussedly and yet also simultaneously soothes the brow with the balm of tenderness. Then again perhaps too we love it most simply for the audacity of writing and delivering a line where Cole admits he is “thinking about rhyming ‘righteous’ with ‘might just’” and then immediately follows it with just that.
It is unfortunate that the song blips into life in an awkward manner with a synth refrain that rather recalls’ Aneka’s ’Japanese Boy’ (we admit that might just be a peculiarly Unpopular nervous tick) but it is certainly the number on ‘Guessworks’ where any guitar obsessives might find a sliver of relief, for there are Fender squalls (one assumes they are Fender generated but not being a guitar aficionado I would not really know for sure) blowing in to unsettle those blips and bleeps before we surf out on waves of (synth?) strings and into ‘Violins’. There are moments of amusingly blunt (one assumes) self-critique (who amongst us can claim to have not self-deprecatingly accused ourselves of being “a complicated motherfucker” at some point in our lives?), and the song certainly cuts to the quick with statements about declining notions of moderation. Yet it is the counterpoint to all this that really makes ‘Night Sweats’ so compelling. It is the simple thought that there is someone to calm us in those moments of doubt, in those episodes of extreme anxiety. That there is someone to share our lives with.
Importantly, and this again may be a peculiarly Unpopular reading of the text, this someone may indeed be ourselves. That part of our self that we accused of being the “complicated motherfucker” that yet also consoles us and talks us down and around. We hold ourselves close and we might just make it to the morning.
Lispector – ‘The Actress In The Background’ from ‘Small Town Graffiti’ LP
We cannot quite believe that it is seventeen years since we first told the world we were in love with the sounds made by Julie Margat/Lispector. In those intervening years she has made multiple solo recordings and been an invaluable contributor to the Go! Team and Whyte Horses gangs (amongst others), but never has she sounded quite as wonderfully WHOLE as on ‘Small Town Graffiti’. The songs remain as peculiarly infectious as ever, but whilst we can still feel the raw, rough edges of the assemblages, there is now an ever so slightly smoother surface that reflects our wrinkled crows feet. It’s not polish exactly, but rather a deeper patina of burnished experience showing through. We look in these mirrors and wonder who this is looking back at us, even as we recognise the nooks and crannies of our very souls.
There has always been something gently, naturally and oddly psychedelic about Lispector records and it’s very much visible on ‘Small Town Graffiti’. This is a world in which we paint our picket fences purple and pink, in which we trim our candyfloss bushes with nail scissors made from bubblegum. No doubt this is a reason why Dom Thomas recruited Julie into the Whyte Horses fold early, and there is a super reproduction of ’Astrologie Siderale’ (first heard on ‘Pop Or Not’) on here that is splendidly frenetic and marginally unhinged.
It’s ‘Actress In The Background’ that we keep coming back to, however, with it’s list-type song structure through which Julie seems to look at herself in that aforementioned mirror in an attempt to make some sense of her/our world. For a French artist named after a Brazilian author singing in English then it is a marvellous encapsulation of identity… well, not crisis, and certainly not confusion, but more diffusion… It’s a song that deftly taps into contemporary questions of identity and reality, gently questioning notions of self and society perception. The song has no answers of course, and instead slips slowly into a surreal blend of language (“I am the actress in the omelette”) which is in itself a neat summation of Where We Find Ourselves In 2019. It’s a dedication to natural diversity; a paean to the overlooked, forgotten and ignored; a hymn to the Unpopular outsiders, happy in our isolation.
The Leaf Library – ‘Hissing Waves’ from ‘The World Is A Bell’ LP
If Rozi Plain is stunningly adept at making succinct statements of Space-Folk-Techno-Psych-Pop then The Leaf Library shrug off notions of brevity and go all out for extended evocations of those same inner and outer spaces with the lengthy yet never sprawling ‘The World Is A Bell’ set. As with Rozi Plain, the landscapes that The Leaf Library inhabit are those liminal ones between urban and rural. They are those spaces where technology impinges and perhaps, for a moment in time, dominate, yet where too there feels an inevitability of that domination ultimately breaking down under nature’s relentless strength. As such it feels a strikingly contemporary record, utterly in tune with the tensions and conflicts that permeate our societies. Yet is is hardly a record that sounds tense. Instead it is a record that seeks calm in those divergent impulses between nature and technology, between urban and rural, between, I suppose, ’remain’ and ‘leave’ (in/from what, to where and why feel like the roots of everything, everywhere).
Ultimately too though is a record that simply sounds exquisite and never more so than on the near seven minutes of ‘Hissing Waves’. This is a piece that vibrates in the air above us, shimmering like summer heat haze above the distant hills, Steiglitz clouds hovering in the high atmosphere. It inhabits a landscape where Stereolab may dominate but where there is more than enough expanse for other Mahogany tinged elements to set up home and linger. And so ‘Hissing Waves’ slips over and around itself, wrapping us in lustrous sunlight refractions and hazy woodsmoke tendrils. It grabs hold of our psyche and leads us into a groove of deliciously tethered delirium on our inner dancefloors, disco-balls of moonlight sparkling above us all the while. We abandon ourselves to the bliss and hold our fingers on ‘repeat’.
If there has been a theme to the opening five days of this advent series then we would likely identify it as being one that takes in notions of Folk traditions given contemporary spins, often mining the more rustically psychedelic corners of that landscape. Rozi Plain certainly fits with this theme in some ways, yet also crucially acts as a bridge to a land where the threads are perhaps a little more space age and a little less earth-bound and organically rooted. On ‘What A Boost’ it feels as though Rozi Plain is drifting out into a space (inner and/or outer) where space itself is the vital ingredient, a space punctuated by carefully positioned sounds that sequence themselves in gently, bitter-sweetly seductive simplicity. Like Alula Down, it feels as if Rozi Plain is stripping songs down to their barest motifs which she then drips in artfully executed repetitive phrases into our psyches. At times it feels like Stereolab pulled back from their drive into motorik grooves and diverted down a path where those grooves are laid by generations of footsteps mixing with electric pulses from overhead pylons. The invisible is made audible, but barely so. So there is groove to ‘What A Boost’ but it is also the kind of groove laid down by Young Marble Giants all those years ago, which is to say a groove created by void, a groove created as much by what is left out than what is placed on the canvas.
Nowhere is this more clearly heard than on the wonderful ‘Dark Park’ where it sounds as though Rozi Plain is eating noddemix in the long grasses, gazing into a creeping dusk that wraps around us with delicious gloom. It’s been suggested in the past that there was always a distinct connection to be made between Young Marble Giants and the sounds of minimal techno music and this is certainly a thread that seeps through into ‘What A Boost’ and the ‘Dark Park’. Phone signals diminish and dip out of contact, detaching us briefly from our electronic worlds and insisting on a more earth-bound connectivity before slipping back. And forth. And back and forth. And back.
In this ‘Dark Park’ and throughout ‘What A Boost’ Rozi Plain seems to suggest that whilst our contemporary societies seem to be insisting on us taking up distinct, oppositional stances, perhaps the answer to our happiness and prosperity lies more peculiarly balanced within the space between. We can have this and we can have that, but only if we acknowledge and embrace the tensions and contradictions between. It’s a difficult, delicate act to pull off, but as Rozi Plain demonstrates, it’s an act worth striving for that, when it comes off, is compelling and beautiful.
Vic Mars – ‘Thistle and Briar’ from ‘Inner Roads and Outer Paths’ LP Alison Cotton – ‘The Girl I Left Behind’ from 10”
Vic Mars’ ‘Inner Roads and Outer Paths’ set would likely have made this advent list regardless, but its place was certainly cemented thanks to Matthew Davies terrific video for ‘Thistle and Briar’. Davies’ video supports Mars’ concept of the album being an evocation of childhood memories of place (in Mars’ case, specifically that of rural Herefordshire – that county again) by adept use of archive footage showing bucolic holidays from a mythical past suffused by golden light and empty roads. What gives the video a particularly poignant pull for us, however, is that the opening shot is of The Firth Of Clyde looking over to the mountains of Arran, which is to say the landscape of our own childhoods (for better and/or for worse). This is the view we would have seen from the Dallam Towers hotel on our Saturday night visits to a friend who worked the kitchens and it is the view we would have witnessed on those summer afternoon walks to the reservoir when we watched Concorde circle and bump its way around the Ayrshire skies. This could be the view we talked about never quite witnessing whilst listening to Tracey Thorn’s ‘A Distant Shore’, and it is certainly almost exactly the scene we viewed innumerable times as we laboured over the hill on our bicycles, bound for impossible relationships and vast amounts of home-brewed beer and wine. So something special, certainly.
Mars’ record is something special too; an instrumental confection that deftly treads the line between remembered and imagined whilst also recognising the manner in which those elements essentially intermingle within any artform that mediates rural ‘history’. Mars’ music is rooted in traditional folk refrains and has a palette that is recognisably of the English Idyll, yet it is also inescapably touched by the Now in so far as it pulls in threads of dislocation and juxtapositions that are set in subtle tension. These are meditations on the places in which natural pasts have retreated from technological futures before inexorably recapturing some of that last ground. To paraphrase some of the marvellous song titles, these are the sounds of the nests in the warehouse roofs, of the broken spires and the ruined arches, the Holloways and paths beyond the towns, of the earthworks and trackways at the end of the branch lines. Glitched Suburban Psych Folk, if you will.
Mars’ is a landscape that the Clay Pipe label has been inhabiting for several years now, always with an eloquently poised palette. The works released, from records by various artists to badges and graphic narratives all feel very much a part of the same universe. That universe is unapologetically informed by nostalgia and memory of times past, yet it avoids suffering the stereotypical Leaver’s Myopia by being simultaneously informed by notions of Now and of Future. Clay Pipe, and all its various artefacts, feels utterly contemporary simply because it dares to wear these potentially contradictory stances on the same sleeve.
Speaking of sleeves, there is certainly something important about the unifying aesthetic to the Clay Pipe artwork, and Frances Castle’s gorgeous illustration for Mars’ record is a splendid Rural Contemporary piece that captures the juxtapositions of ancient and modern within the one landscape. My favourite of Castle’s illustrations from this year however must be the one gracing the 10” sleeve of Alison Cotton’s ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’. A thirteen minute instrumental, the track was commissioned for Gideon Coe’s BBC 6 Music show and broadcast as soundtrack to Bronwen Price’s narration of the Muriel Spark ghost story during the Christmas period of 2018. It is always a pleasure to hear any work by Alison Cotton and this 10” (coupled with another 13 minute instrumental piece ‘The House Of The Famous Poet’) is certainly a crucial addition to the growing body of work that marks her (and partner Mark Nicholas with The Left Outsides) as one of the most significant players in the realm of contemporary psych-folk magik.
Trappist Afterland – ‘God’s Food’ from ‘Insects In Amber’ LP
Trappist Afterland (aka the prolific Adam Cole) has, over the past few years, firmly established himself as a favourite in the Unpopular firmament. Just how much of a compliment this may be is for others to decide, but what is clear is that through his performances and recordings Cole continues to explore intriguing avenues where Folk meets the realms of Gnostic spirituality and metaphysical musing.
On the ‘Insects In Amber’ set Cole again draws various collaborators into the Trappist web, notably in the form of Kitchen Cynics’ Alan Davidson on narration duties on a couple of tracks and Irish folkster David Colohon with “prayer and hymn” duties on ‘Bishop Of Armagh’, a track that explicitly brings reference to what we might call more traditional, organised religion into the Trappist landscape. Elsewhere Cole draws in a more secular reference point in Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Dream Within A Dream’. It’s a poem that to some of us of a certain age is very much associated with the reading by Propaganda on their classic ‘A Secret Wish’ LP back in 1985 and if Trappist Afterland’s take inescapably comes off second best in a head to head comparison it’s to their credit that the poem is given a fittingly off-kilter interpretation. It’s a pared back reading with cadence and rhyming structure tweaked to fit the medium of song, and it’s a deftly delivered evocation of the notion that all is connected. Particularly so as it follows our personal favourite from the ‘Insects In Amber’ set.
‘God’s Food’ is gloriously insistent, repetitive, building on those simple refrains and layers of texture we enjoyed so much in Alula Down. ‘God’s Food’ is hymnal without being suffocatingly oppressive, ancient and modern in the same breath, and It is deeply connected to the Earth without being insufferably smug and preachy. This is no mean feat, and in these times where rabidly oppositional stances are increasingly insisted upon there is something of a balm in songs like ‘God’s Food’ and artists like Trappist Afterland reminding us quietly that it is only through embracing the connectedness (and therefore, implicitly, the contradictions) that enlightenment might be found.