Unpopular Advent 2018 – Day 6

Whyte Horses – Empty Words

Idly perusing others’ reviews of the Whyte Horses album it strikes me that almost all have fallen into the trap of using the dreaded ‘p’ word to describe the music. Hell, I’ve been guilty myself in the past, and not just when talking about the various episodes in the timeline of Dom Thomas’ always intriguing and exciting project. And so, as I start to say something about ‘Empty Words’ I set myself the challenge of not using the ‘p’ word. Either of them.

Let me start by admitting that I know next to nothing of the most ‘famous’ vocalists on ‘Empty Horses’, both La Roux and Melanie Pain being people I am familiar with by name only (and Pain only in the sense that I have heard of the Nouvelle Vague group). I could not swear that I have ever heard either singing on their own records and in truth hearing them on ‘Empty Horses’ has not had me scurrying to investigate further. Perhaps this is merely my perverse elitism at play but I prefer to suggest it is because neither Pain nor La Roux sound like ‘guests’ on this record. Rather they sound like established members of the one group, so well positioned do they appear. It is the same with the other vocalists Audrey Pic and Leonore Wheatley, both of whom I am much more familiar with through their work as members of the groups Envelopes and Soundcarriers. Indeed, it is Envelopes and their Francophile Swedish confections that Whyte Horses most closely resemble across ‘Empty Words’, for the record is filled with songs that could slip neatly into the company of great Swedish groups like Concetes, The Embassy (whose own ‘White Lake’ has tragically arrived just too late to make my advent list) or pretty much any of those great groups on the Labrador label. One also rather wonders if Dom Thomas tried to get Robyn to sing on ‘Empty Words’. That would surely have been a treat.

Soundcarriers too are a useful reference point in that the threads of interest in repetition and Sterolab-infused motorik rhythm are audible here also. Always, however, in subtle and sensitive ways. ‘Empty Words’ is no slavish reproduction of sounds and records of influence but rather an effective re-imagined collage. The joins are smoother and less clearly defined than on the first Whyte Horses album but this is no great criticism, for in some ways ‘Empty Words’ puts me in mind of when Scritti Politti moved from scratchy post-punk cultural critics to glossy smooth purveyors of commercial sweetness and there was nothing wrong with that after all. Of course it is entirely possible that songs from ‘Empty Words’ may have stormed the Real Music Charts in 2018 and that I have been blissfully unaware, so out of touch with such worlds have I been for the past few decades. This is no snobbish boast incidentally, just A Matter Of Fact. Did ’The Best Of It’ figure in the Top 40 rundown? Do they even have a Top 40 rundown any longer?

Certainly ‘Fake Protest Song’ features in my own Top 24 run down, as evidenced by this advent entry. It’s the song that makes a concrete connection to the first LP by featuring again the St. Barts School Choir. One rather assumes it is different voices (such is the nature of schools) yet there is a familiarity, a timelessness (such is the nature of a choir) that is both heartening and depressing. Heartening in that there are few things more naturally optimistic than children’s voices raised in song; depressing in that although there are changes, nothing much actually changes. This fits the mood of the song perfectly, for it is as a plaintive, vaguely optimistic (yet oddly mournful) plea to close the song that the children sing “Don’t follow me, we can be free”. This follows a section where the choir sings about “natural light” “shining so pure” and if it could be construed as a bit crass and obviously quasi-religious iconography, it nevertheless fits rather well as a conclusion to a song that roots itself sonically in traditions of ‘60s folk-rock protest song whilst simultaneously mocking both the tropes of that tradition and the manner in which contemporary ‘protest’ so often embraces the very tools and techniques used by those they ostensibly oppose. The song senses that in a world apparently trapped in an endless cycle of protest and counter-protest, a world of alligments built around ever diverging opposites, there appears to be no real opportunity to express disillusionment other than in forming another fractured following built around a tenuous notion of a shared identity. All this pressure to ‘identify’ as this, that or the other, all of it forming barriers and distance. Smallness, quietness, intimate calm is no longer an option and it is this that these gently plaintive children’s voices seem to be mourning most.

It feels odd to be concluding a piece about a largely euphoric and technicolor record on such a downbeat note, but perhaps it is entirely fitting, for Dom Thomas’ project is nothing if not a glorious contemporary evocation of past and future references. And if, as Todd Hido’s recent ‘Bright Black World’ photographs suggest, we are collectively marching into darkness and despair then perhaps we can at least do so with some glamorous songs in our hearts.

And at least I didn’t mention the ‘p’ word.

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