Unpopular Advent 2019 – Day 18

Vetchinsky Settings – ‘Accidental Beauty’ from ‘Underneath the stars, still waiting’ LP

It is the nature of Pop to proclaim different favourites of this and of that with every passing breath. In keeping with that nature then we tell you that today our favourite vocalist is James Hackett and our favourite composer Mark Tranmer. Tomorrow it may all be different and yesterday was never the same, but what does that all matter anyway when Pop is about the invisible here and the impossible now. The moments that exist only in the breath of a heartbeat and the geometry of existence. The moments that last forever.

Those who know the score know Hackett best as the voice of The Orchids and Tranmer as the name behind GNAC and as part of The Montgolfier Brothers, amongst others, each having made records that nestle securely on the top shelf of our most beloveds. Hardly surprising then that together as Vetchninsky Settings they have made another record that has swiftly reached into those same heady circles, breathing rarified atmospheres of hushed phthalo blues and bistre washes.

Tranmer’s work has always had cinematic qualities and so it is no surprise to see that connection made explicit on ‘Underneath the stars, still waiting’ with the record peppered with repurposed dialogue and unfolding in an expressionist narrative. We hear characters nod and blow kisses to the lens. Here is Sinatra as A Man Alone and here is Henry Mancini slipping a Manhattan to Anita Kerr in a Kelvinside bistro. Here is Peggy Olson and there is Rachel Brosnahan acting out the period costume and trailing the shopping bags into an empty Govan appartment kitchen. Smoke’s getting in our eyes. We blink and blush as baroque phrases curl around icicles hung from fire escapes. We taste the rain and we touch the flowers. The blues turn to black and white. We flicker on.

‘Underneath the stars, still waiting’ is exquisitely composed, from the songs to the sleeves to the record centres and postcards (all beautifully designed by Timothy O’Donnell) and back again to the songs. The conceit of the record is simple: Four vinyl sides covering ‘Birth’, ‘Love’, ‘Grief’ and ‘Death’ (with one of those cinematic interludes referencing pregnancy and therefore closing the circle and continuing the loop). We could yawn at the obviousness of such a universal theme as the circle of life if it were not for the fact that it is so elegantly carried off. Nowhere do we scent the sense of sickly sweet and cloying sentiment. There is nostalgia, yes, but it is that of knowingly mediated reference points, which is to say a fragile nostalgia which is entirely fictional (which is also to say the only definition of nostalgia worth playing with). Indeed, if we did not have the record sleeve to hand and were listening to the album in a motor car or train or bus (as we do, for it is almost 2020 and this is what life looks like for better or for worse) then it is entirely conceivable that this circle of life conceptual vehicle might pass us by entirely, our thoughts perhaps only prodded into wondering by those dialogue interludes and glancing at the screen to see that the closing songs are called ‘Endgame’, ‘My First Breath (In Nostalgia)’ and ‘My Last Breath’. Okay, those do kind of give the game away. Oh, but what a game it is.

We suggested earlier in this advent series that Lloyd Cole’s ‘Guessworks’ set is made of songs that support each other to provide a sense of album unity, and this is certainly also true of ‘Underneath the stars, still waiting’. Yet today, perhaps with a cold steel revolver barrel pressed into our temples, we are forced to choose one and so we opt for the completely-by-design beauty of ‘Accidental Beauty’, the song that closes the opening ‘Birth’ act and serves as a neat connective into ‘Love’, seamlessly transitioning as the red velvet curtains swish before us.

‘Accidental Beauty’ is one of the numbers on ‘Underneath the stars, still waiting’ that most recalls The Orchids in structure and sound, perhaps because it is one of the songs that might have been composed on guitar rather than piano (such song-writing technicalities are an alien science to us however, so it is entirely possible we are talking nonsense). Certainly there are some delicate guitar lines trembling through the song, mingling with thrumbling drums and bass that reach into our hearts and pull out tarnished stars. It is a song that seems to be about the implicit tensions and contradictions between love and rage, between emotions of release and of captivity, between paternal care and anger. And as Hackett repeatedly sings in his exquisite half-mumble that “Every little tear will help (us) grow” whilst “every little disappointment helps (us) know” we know that this is what it sounds like to love in our indolent modern world.

The sound of life, indeed.

One thought on “Unpopular Advent 2019 – Day 18

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