Unpopular advent 2021 – day 21

Hattie Cooke – ‘Mistaken’ from Bliss Land
Maxine Funke – ‘Quiet Shore’ from Seance

I forget quite how I stumbled on the Castles In Space label and their Subscription Library service. I think it was something to do with following connections from The Modernist magazine out to a project by Chris Sharp called Concretism, which in turn led to being intrigued by a musical project that could be called the Warrington-Runcorn New Town Development Plan. To be honest I was also probably bored with some of the music I was too familiar with and so just perfectly positioned to fall down rabbit holes of new things.

To be honest too it took me a while to twig that the label’s name might be a nod to The Orb. Reading Kris Needs’ terrific book ‘Babble On An’ Ting’ in May naturally put me into a bit of re-exploration of The Orb, whose records I had foolishly all but ignored after an initial infatuation with the Ultraworld back in 1989 to ’91 or so. So it was that ‘Spanish Castles In Space’ drifted back into my consciousness on a sunny afternoon in June and a penny distantly dropped. By this time I had already been digging records by the likes of Twelve Hour Foundation, Dohnavùr, Jilk, Polypores. All names new to me, but sounds strangely familiar from pockets of time in my past listening to Warp and Basic Channel records. In more recent times too perhaps those aesthetic connections to the likes of the Ghost Box and Polytechnic Youth labels whose noises have drifted in and out (though mostly out) of my orbits. In spite of these pockets of interest, however, much electronic music can still sound charmlessly cold to me, like sounds being created by blokes more interested in the tech than music being conjured by magicians. An academic exercise rather than a need to communicate, perhaps. Thankfully that lingering doubt seldom if ever nudges me with the Castles In Space releases, fired through as they seem to be with a common glaze that reflects a pull of landscape, architecture, modern mythology, whatever.

Then there is Hattie Cooke and her utterly beguiling ‘Bliss Land’ set, which seems to sidestep all of that electronic music self-reverential tedium entirely. Maybe it is because she approaches the tools with an interest in what she might make with it rather than how it might work, or perhaps it is due to her just having gotten bored of the overly earnest folk/singer-songwriter thing that fired her younger years. Not that it matters of course, so perhaps too it is best not to over-think this and instead revel in the beautiful, raw reverberations of hollowed-out 21st Century existence that ‘Bliss Land’ delivers.

Now I’ve said throughout this advent series that there might be threads of themes running between records. Inevitably this likely says much more about me that it does about the records themselves. My reading might be very different to the artists’ intent, but this is a part of the appeal of art, after all. Yet one of those imaginary threads might be about art that is fascinated by the flux of time, and ‘Bliss Land’ to me certainly feels to me as if it inhabits at least part of that liminal space. It seems to infiltrate tracks like ‘Youth‘, with its accompanying video of photographs documenting a curated memoryscape of perceived innocence, like Gwenno on Mogadon, maybe. It’s there too in ‘Lovers Game’ with its wistful reflection on how time can twist recollections of broken relationships, Cooke at times coming over like Sarah Cracknell’s nihilistic younger cousin. Elsewhere, ‘Invisible Lines’ hovers in the place where an oscillating anxiety between the almost simultaneous comfort and fear of insularity reverberates in our psyches, whilst ‘Cars’ is Molly Nillson serenading a mediated memory of Gary Numan in John Foxx’s Underpass. Possibly. Meanwhile, to get back to Cooke’s aforementioned teenage roots in acoustic singer/songwriting for a moment, what about the wonderful acoustic version of ‘One Foot Out Of The Door’ that graces a 7″ accompanying the album? This latter cut really pulls out the echoes of Allison Statton’s Young Marble Giants and Weekend excursions. On an Unpopular mix earlier in the year I could not resist including it next to the ’81 demo take of Weekend’s ‘Red Planes’ and I admit it is one of my personal favourite mix juxtapositions.

Best of all though is the thumping heartbeat driven void of ‘Mistaken’, where Cooke sings with a sweet plaintiveness that ‘things feel like they’re going backwards’. It may be a song where the state of relationships serve as metaphor for more global issues or it might indeed be the flip of that, but regardless of which way you may want to view things, it’s hardly a cheery scenario. ‘Happiness is illusion’ Cooke insists in a voice that sounds crystalline as a mountain spring, before fading on a repetition of ‘maybe I’m mistaken’ that loops on itself in eternal whispers of self-doubt and hope.

Now if Hattie Cooke found herself falling out of step with the overly earnest folk/singer-songwriter thing then she is surely not alone. One of my few face to face interactions with another person this year (an enormously enjoyable evening in a Sidmouth pub) touched on this very issue, as an old friend reflected on how, if he really wanted to hear a singer-songwriter who sounded like Vashti Bunyan then he would listen to Vashti Bunyan, thankyouverymuch. It’s a fair point that I broadly agree with, and yet, and yet…

There is certainly something of Vashti Bunyan in the sounds of Maxine Funke, whose extraordinary ‘Seance’ set has so charmed me this year. Not so much in the vocal itself (Funke’s is a lower register and often less pure in timbre) but rather that they seem to share a curiously earthy yet otherworldly mystique. It’s in the way too that both Bunyan and Funke seem interested in creating a songspace that is defined by a minimal number of strokes. They seem to challenge themselves (and us) to craft something where negative space is as valuable as actual sound. An audio exemplification of Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s Zen Twigs photographs, perhaps.

With a string of releases stretching back to 2008’s ‘Lace’ LP (‘Felt’ and ‘Silk’ following in 2012 and 2018 respectively), New Zealand resident Funke has clearly been travelling her own path below the Unpopular radar for some time. It all makes for a tremendous back catalogue to explore of course, and I have spent many days during this Autumn into Winter listening to her songs on a repeating loop, losing myself in their quiet solitude as I have pored over 19th Century maps, entranced by imagined yesterdays.

The Colourful Storm label that ‘Seance’ appears on is also new to me, although perhaps it should not be as in the past few years they have been behind vinyl reissues of those wonderful Blueboy albums and a compilation of Velocette (the San Francisco based ambient techno project of Jason Williams, not the ex-Comet Gain band) whose ‘Sonorities By Starlight’ set I remember enjoying greatly back in 1996. Alongside these reissues however sit new and intriguing releases such as an eponymous album by Princess Diana of Wales (nom de plume of London-based Melbourne-born Laila Sakini) and the ‘Tangerine‘ collection of songs recorded in 2011 to 2012 by Reiko and Tori Kudo. Unpopular devotees of Maher Shalal Hash Baz will no doubt have been way ahead of me on that particular one.

If ‘Seance’ conjures impressions of Maher Shalal Hash Baz primitivism then it also recalls the early 1970’s recordings by Sibylle Baier collected on the ‘Colour Green’ album. Again, that value of emptiness; the importance of what is not there being as critical as what is. Compiled mostly of short compositions that inhabit a span of between two to three and a half minutes each, ‘Seance’ sounds homespun without ever coming over as wilfully quaint. Songs like ‘Moody Relish’ with its ‘Colossal Youth’ snaps and voids and ‘Goodbye’ with its tape hissing ghosts of summer lawns are as captivatingly withdrawn as they are memorably near non-existent. At more than twice the length of almost any other song in her extensive repertoire, meanwhile, ‘Quiet Shore’ is in some ways an oddity, in others a magnificent summation of progress and, perhaps, a signpost to the future. Like those similarly lengthy numbers on David Lance Callahan’s ‘English Primitive I’ it is a piece that inhabits a space that is both easily recognisable yet strangely off-kilter. The landscape vibrates like a mirage. Notes echo off distant hills with a sombre insistence, like a fox’s cry or an insect’s thrum; nature as a tinnitus grumble transformed to an awkward beauty.

A communion with the illusory spirits of place and time, ‘Seance’ is as close to the essence of emptiness and/or existence as it might be possible to reach without disappearing entirely into worthless cliché. No more, and certainly no less than a triumph.

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