Unpopular advent 2018 – Day 23

The Left Outsides – All That Remains

Sunrise has yet to do anything more than create the faintest of lightenings to the sky. On the valley floor patches of mist sit impassively, flooded fields shining faintly through like swathes of silver. Out of the mist rear the mighty electricity pylons, receding up the valley like a column of sentries guarding ineffectually against the coming dawn.

Thus do my morning commutes often begin in the months of December and January and when they did so last week to the soundtrack of The Left Outsides’ gorgeous ‘All The Remains’ they provided moments of rare synthesis between sound and vision. Of course I know that Jude Rogers made reference to The Left Outsides evoking “chilly fields at dawn” (a notion I like to think picks up the cover photo from their first release, a 3” CDR on my ‘i wish i was unpopular’ label) in her review for the Manchester Guardian but it does bear repeating. And didn’t Rob Young make a point about the magic of electricity pylons punctuating the landscape in his terrific ‘Electric Eden’ book? I am sure he did as I’m equally sure my heart leapt when I read those words, falling on me as one of those enormous yeses that Larkin wrote about.

‘Electric Eden’ is certainly a relevant reference point for The Left Outsides for they are so very firmly rooted in the traditions of English Electric Folk music, having grown and developed over the years to be really one of the most reliably wonderful acts around. Yet if each of their previous albums have been beguiling collections of moments that touch on the half-forgotten imprints of an English folk tradition, there is something about ‘All That Remains’ that marks it as a significant step forward. Perhaps it is in the way they now embrace the electric elements of their music in such a confident manner. Never afraid of quiet and space, on ‘All That Remains’ it seems like Alison and Mark have now found the perfect place for noise and atmospheric claustrophobia. Of course ’noise’ is relative, for the electricity of ‘All That Remains’ is that of TVs tuned to white snow, guitars conjuring that barely penetrable valley mist. Perhaps as if Phil Spector was producing Soft Machine if you need that more historical musical connection made in your synaptic core.

The space and quiet is still there of course and it is still mesmerising. ‘All Those I Danced With Are Gone’ is Felt’s ‘All The People I Like Are Those That Are Dead’ performed as a funeral march (yes, that good) whilst ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s late nineteenth century tale of mental health transfigured as contemporary illustration, eloquently pulling threads from the past into a tapestry of the present. Throughout these and other songs on ‘All That Remains’ drifts Alison Cotton’s voice as an almost disembodied presence, like the vapour trails of Kendra Smith softly dissipating into the outer atmosphere. And if Cotton’s viola and harmonium drones are perhaps less prominent on ‘All That Remains’ than on previous Left Outsides records (saved, perhaps, for the darker shadows of her excellent solo outing ‘All Is Quiet At The Ancient Theatre’) then that is no criticism for it allows partner Mark Nicholas’ guitars and drums a more central position, pulling some songs deeper into the psychedelic folk underworld. Nicholas’ own vocals, incidentally, make a great counterpoint to Cottons, being fundamentally more earth-bound whilst retaining the sense of spooked transparency essential to the overall aesthetic. He sounds best on the enchanting, droning ‘Down To The Waterside’, a tale of blissful escape from modernity underpinned by a haunting darkness. It is the soundtrack to Jem Southam’s exquisite photographs of my own Exe valley or Matthew Genitempo’s of foggy landscapes, hermetic homes, and rugged men living in solitude in the dark woods of the Ozark mountains in Arkansas and Missouri.

It is the title song on the album that I have most often returned this year, however. A shimmering five minutes of mesmeric illusory loss and longing, ‘All That Remains’ is, like the entire album, a meditation on the places that exist between dreaming and waking, between real and imagined, between past, present and future. As guitars glisten and shiver I am reminded of 14 Iced Bears’ magnificent ‘Dust Remains’ from their criminally undervalued eponymous LP (thankfully recently given the reissue treatment by Optic Nerve) and that is no bad thing for both songs are certainly connected by notions of a kaleidoscopic vision photographed in muted palettes (lets note too that Andy Martin’s terrific wet collodion portrait of the duo is such a perfect visual encapsulation of their aesthetic as imagineered voices from a mediated past).

On ‘All That Remains’ it seems as though The Left Outsides have lifted tenderly the forgotten blossoms of gentle psychedelic folk and woven them into a crown of understated magnificence which they wear with disarming confidence. Hail the king and queen.

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