Unpopular Advent 2019 – Day 5

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.

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