Friday, November 23, 2007

Floating Without The Old Constraints

Paris Motel - In The Salpetriere

At long last! Amy May’s band of fluctuating musical conspirators have long been one of my favourite live acts in London. Unit, one of my now defunct musical projects, had the privilege of having the group join us for the launch of our debut album back in 2006. Whilst Unit suffered that clichéd fate of disintegration due to ‘musical differences’, Paris Motel have kept true to their remarkably pure and consistent musical vision, although it’s taken rather a long time for this debut album to emerge.

This is essentially British folk music with small group orchestral arrangements. It’s what is what is often casually referred to as ‘chamber pop’, for want of a more accurate term – equal parts Fairport Convention and JS Bach. It’s no longer an especially novel concept, but Amy May’s arrangements are considerably more ornate and expressive than those of, say, Arcade Fire (not to take anything away from that band – their sound is still brutally effective in a live context, as their Alexandra Palace shows last week demonstrated). These songs all have a character and elegance that is very much May's own.

Since their promising ‘071’ EP, the group have largely succeeded in making their sound a little more muscular and a little less twee, without losing any of their charm or subtlety in the process. There are some clear standout tracks on this carefully sequenced album – notably the rolling rhythmic drive of ‘City Of Ladies’, with its affectionately cooing backing vocals, or the lush, romantic and thoroughly beguiling ‘Catherine By The Sea’. The latter effectively closes the album with a warm rush of melody and charm, with some thoroughly enchanting lyrics (‘I have a map of your skin, I know the valleys within…’). The elaborate arrangements are controlled enough to allow Amy May’s delicate, understated vocals to breathe – what her voice lacks in power it makes up for in empathy and humanity. There’s also the shuffling, evocative ‘Three Steps’ and the epic love song ‘After Wanda’, which veers adroitly from the melancholy to the celebratory.

In between, there’s plenty of charm, but much of it is a little less immediate. ‘Coignet’s Trial’ is considerably more restrained and stripped back and whilst it initially seems a little directionless, repeated listens reveal its subtle, hypnotic qualities. Similarly, ‘My Demeta’ is based more on elusive mystery and implication than anything clearly stated, but it eventually draws you in to its spellbinding world. A cursory glance at the song titles will quickly reveal that we’re in ‘suspend your disbelief’ lyrical territory here – with all manner of devices more familiar from fairytale and folklore than contemporary popular song. There’s nothing wrong with that in the right hands though – and May’s imaginings hit the right side of the fine line more often than not.

I strongly suspect there’s much more still to come from Amy May – ‘City Of Ladies’ and ‘Catherine By The Sea’, with their cautious hints at Phil Spector and Motown arrangements, suggest a more exotic and ambitious future. Some of the tracks here are a little overlong and don’t build or grow quite as much as they could. For now, though, this is a wonderfully crafted and enchanting record that reveals more and more with every listen.

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