I'm always game for a new challenge, as Matron will attest to whence she introduced the idea of boxing gloves as part of my night attire on the maximum security wing. Fear not, gentle Sponger I still managed to do that thing that furrows the brow and makes the hand shake afterwards...those speed-crosswords are a bugger, aren't they?
Tarry and fol-de-rol, onwards with this review and the challenge of a different kind a pre-gig interview, a gig review and an album review all rolled into one. The artist concerned is The Declining Winter, whose rather splendid album Haunt The Upper Hallways is spinning as I type.
I had the chance to speak briefly with The Declining Winter's driving force, a very personable chap called Richard Adams. Richard is a quietly-spoken Yorkshireman (yes, such a creature does exist) with all the friendly bounce of a red setter. Having been part of the post-rock (there it is again) outfit Hood with his brother, Richard has now skewed into ambient/folk-rock country with The Declining Winter.
Partly, this is down to his affection for what might be termed "pure" ambient he name checked German electronicist Gas (an artist we're both fond of) and The Declining Winter have also toured with one of the genre's leading lights (and a personal favourite of mine) Stars Of The Lid.
Envious? Me? Too bloody right.
Work is already in place for the next album and Richard hopes to be touring the USA following the completion/release of the latter. There's also a side project in the works between Richard and a hammered-dulcimer player (you have to be sure to put the hyphen in the description of that musician, or someone might think it's a dulcimer player who's no stranger to the grog; "What's that God-awful noise?" "Ah, it's that guy there...the hammered dulcimer player..")
I'm going to be brief about the gig and lay the blame squarely at the door of Declining Winter's soundman. I arrived to talk to Richard after the sound-check had been done, but really the casual observer would be hard pushed to tell that they'd had one. Indeed, the sound-man was still walking out in front of the band for a listen when the set was two songs away from finishing.
The Island Bar isn't a big venue it's not like he had to battle with conflicting or difficult acoustics as the place filled up. Richard looked embarrassed for most of the set, although it did all hang together a little better towards the end of the gig, which, in my torn and tattered book, is a little too late.
Suffice to say that the live experience was a much different beast to the rather studied, gentle album I currently have playing.
I slipped away during the band's rendition of the new album's title track. I liked Richard from the chat we had, and I didn't want him to ask what I'd thought and have to give an honest answer.
Richard, if you're reading this sort your sound-guy out. He let you and the band down sorely.
Anyhow (and excuse me while I digress for a minute and ask all of my American readers and a very good evening to you both where that odd and bloody annoying "anyhoo" came from? Am I allowed, under US legislation, to punch in the mouth anyone who says it? Punch them really hard indeed, with all my weight behind it? Answers on a postcard ONLY, please, to Mrs Doris Cheesegusset, Customer Services, Avis Car Hire, Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo), on with the CD review.
As I mentioned previously, Haunt The Upper Hallways is a gently meandering affair; violins abound and the instrumentation is largely acoustic. Richard's voice is used as an instrument, weaving on the edge of being inaudible in the mix in an unsettling, ethereal fashion.
The latter is no more well utilised than on the album's titular opener, with acoustic guitars, violins, electric bass and Richard's keening, half-whispered vocals chugging like a Model T over a piece of rough, remote terrain. Quite wonderful.
The album gains pace track by track; by the third cut (the tantalisingly short and melancholy Hey EFD), we're into the realms of the modern madrigal. All quite charming.
The production is inspired here the layered, slightly insane vocals on Where The Seven Rivers Tread, for example, sit in a swirling mix of back-beat drums, organ and bass. It's an afternoon in the day-room of a valium-soaked asylum. I love it.
This is the main feel of the whole album, although Richard does throw in the odd piece of weirdness here and there (like the monophonic, sub-minute and a half Drenched) I was left feeling that these small interludes were gratuitously added to break up the softer, bittersweet nature of the rest of the cuts here. I could live without them, and their inclusion is far outweighed by the strength of the work as a whole.
I like this album (which came packaged with a vinyl 7-inch single, by the way a very nice touch) I like it a lot and strongly recommend that you buy it immediately, if only for the penultimate track Carta Remix worth the price of admission alone. I was very familiar with it before I attended the gig and I this may have added to my disappointment with the live performance, but hey I meant what I said about the sound man.
Now, my children, I must away...if I can get the leather of these boxing gloves to be just a little more supple, I can paint a face on one of them and spend an hour in the cupboard under the stairs, playing a game of The Naughty Chimp.
God bless you and all who sail in you.