Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Yin and Yang

Sweet Billy Pilgrim - Twice Born Men (Samedhi Sound, 2009)
Super Furry Animals - Dark Days/Light Years (Rough Trade, 2009)

Here are two very different albums with which I’m completely besotted at the moment. Sweet Billy Pilgrim are a new name to me, the latest signings to David Sylvian’s Samedhi Sound label. Their second album ‘Twice Born Men’ is a rather sober and serious affair, albeit in the best possible way. By way of contrast, ‘Dark Days/Light Years’ is thoroughly bonkers – the most madcap album in Super Furry Animals’ quirky catalogue.

Getting straight to the point, the music on ‘Twice Born Men’ is disarmingly beautiful. It’s a beautifully crafted, effortlessly cohesive album that represents a shining example of genuinely artful pop music. There’s a strong melodic sensibility at work which is reminiscent of the intelligent anthems of Doves or Elbow, but there’s also a freer, more impressionistic side to this group, and an adventurous approach to instrumentation and arrangement. Many of the positive reviews this album has received have mentioned Talk Talk, although the music here is warmer and less stark than ‘Laughing Stock’. It’s a powerful, distinctive hybrid sound focused on texture and atmosphere. Whilst there are plenty of banjos and acoustic guitars, this could hardly be classified as folk music. Similarly, whilst there are plenty of gently swelling synth pads and found sounds, the group are not exactly electronic either.

The album is neatly bookended by the same musical theme, although it is stated in radically different ways. This gives it a rather old-fashioned sense of a long form journey and, indeed, chief songwriter Tim Elsenberg has admitted that he considers it a concept album about ‘the heart’s little journey’. Not perhaps the most novel of ideas, but the execution of the theme is near perfect. It opens with rustling cymbals, electronic haze and a finger picked electric guitar playing a delicate theme – pretty but melancholy. Over this, an American voice intones a story about a 13 month road trip – the important element being the free movement of driving rather than the places passed through. It sounds like a journey of forgetting and escaping but the story ends abruptly – ‘…but then I met you’. The end of the album returns to that electric guitar theme, but this time it is presented as a bawdy drunken chorus, which is in fact Tim Elsenberg’s voice overdubbed thirty times.

The first proper song ‘Truth Only Smiles’, is a neat encapsulation of this band’s magic. It’s an ambitious, rhythmically fascinating song with a strange, elusive verse giving way to a big, heartfelt chorus. Elsenberg’s voice has the full blooded force of Thom Yorke or Jeff Buckley but he also has an intuitive sense of how and when to use restraint. ‘Bloodless Coup’ and ‘Kalypso’ are similarly entrancing, the latter veering through a bewildering array of texture and tempo variations but exercising its own peculiar logic. The arrangements are completely beguiling. Unfortunately, I haven’t got credits to hand, but strings and what sounds like a clarinet add depth and resonance.

‘Longshore Drift’ sounds much like its title suggests, with a rubato delivery and a more abstract sensibility. This quality returns on the album’s penultimate track, although both are too restless and emotive to risk inducing sleep. The crackly electronics in the background serve to enhance the sense of eeriness. Although a number of the songs extend for over six minutes, the album as a whole is concise at only eight tracks. The abstract moments are always punctuated by more robust moments, like the asymmetrical, jazzy undertones of ‘Future Pefect Tense’. Whilst the album ends with its most dreamlike material, the group sustain a perplexing combination of melancholy and euphoria that makes for truly stirring music throughout.

‘Twice Born Men’ is lyrically evocative too, with a recurring maritime theme which is continued in the cover art – apparently there’s more information about the art than the music in the liner notes. There are also some inventive and imaginative lines (the ‘dreams all cracked and pistol-whipped’ of ‘Truth Only Smiles’ springs immediately to mind). At worst, it relies on platitudes about emotions and relationships, but these are far more insightful than those offered by lesser artists.

Sweet Billy Pilgrim make music that seems to float and drift, with numerous ideas feeding into an over-arching mood or atmosphere. When a strong melodic theme emerges, its impact is greater for being unexpected. The more I listen to it, the more its subtle detail creeps to the surface. Equal parts vulnerability and strength – this is cerebral music with a richly emotive core. Much has already been said about Grizzly Bear’s upcoming ‘Veckatimest’, but ‘Twice Born Men’ already sounds like a worthy UK counterpart.

Whereas ‘Twice Born Men’ is the work of a band with a clear, coherent vision and is carefully structured, Super Furry Animals seem to have, quite deliriously, lost all sense of direction on ‘Dark Days/Light Years’. It is gleefully all over the place and remarkably self-indulgent. Yet SFA are a rare band that actually benefit from freeing themselves from strictures. Although much of the music here is based on grooves (often seemingly krautrock-inspired), their infectious hooks often win through in the end. They have an effortless knack for making the very process of creating music sound like tremendous fun. This is, of course, exactly how it should be.

Their scattershot approach here makes for a much more engaging listen than the languid psychedelia of much of ‘Love Kraft’, or even the crisp pop of ‘Hey Venus!’. For those who prefer SFA at their weirdest, ‘Dark Days/Light Years’ will comfortably be their best album since ‘Guerilla’. This doesn’t necessarily mean the music is always wildly original. Much of the opening ‘Crazy Naked Girls’ (how could a song with a title like that be possible to resist?) is clearly derived from Hendrix or Led Zeppelin and the group’s fascination with The Beach Boys remains prevalent elsewhere. As ever, it’s the way SFA combine these yardsticks of classic pop and rock with their more experimental impulses. So, the aforementioned ‘Crazy Naked Girls’ begins with a bewildering raft of programmed beats, before exploding into a guitar-lead freak-out.

Satisfyingly, there are some remnants of the joyous reconstruction of 80s pop Gruff crafted with Boom Bip on the Neon Neon album. ‘Inaugural Trams’ and ‘The Very Best of Neil Diamond’ (more great titles!) both benefit from that pulsating, shimmering sheen. The German spoken word sectionin ‘Inaugural Trams’ is delivered by Franz Ferdinand’s Nick McCarthy – it’s probably not too harsh on Franz to suggest it’s more worthwhile than anything on their latest effort. Gruff’s vocals are often electronically treated to enhance the bizarre, hallucinogenic mood that prevails throughout the record. As has been the tendency on recent SFA albums, this sounds like the work of a democratic group – with lead vocal contributions from Bunf and Cian as well as Gruff and a wider emphasis on harmonies.

There is space for ‘Dark Days/Light Years’ to conclude with a lengthy motorik groove (the thoroughly daft ‘Pric’) and for it to contain an epic piece of hazy psychedelia (‘Cardiff In The Sun’). Even such extravagances don’t detract from the overall sense that this is, at heart, a pop album. Songs like ‘White Socks/Flip Flops’ and ‘Helium Hearts’ are shot through with the group’s oddball charm and natural way with a winning melody. The only limitations come with a slight feeling of repetition. ‘Inconvenience’, in spite of its griping lyrics, is actually self-mocking and full of life, but it’s basically a retread of the glam stomp of ‘Golden Retriever’. Similarly, ‘Helium Hearts’ seems based on the same brand of awkward funk that characterised ‘Smokin’ or ‘Juxtaposed With U’.

These are very minor quibbles though – to have SFA at their energetic, devil-may-care best is exhilarating and much of ‘Dark Days/Light Years’ sounds like a manic celebration of modern absurdity. As odd as this excitable album often is, it’s also playful, inventive and massively enjoyable.


Anonymous said...

How does one procure a copy of the Sweet Billy Pilgrim album?

Daniel said...

It's on iTunes, or available by mail order from the Samdehi Sound website. If you're wanting a promo, I'm afraid I have no idea who does online press for Samedhi Sound - it's possibly in house?

Demob Happy said...

Hi Daniel,
Sweet Billy Pilgrim sounds interesting - I'll check it out.
I've posted on the SFA now. One thing that strikes me about the album is the way that Gruff's vocals are treated throughout Dark Days, or less prominent in the mix. Somehow the album seems a fuller (perhaps more democratic) expression of the band's musical personality than previously seen - or at least less pivoted on Gruff's vocals. It's by far my favourite of theirs.

Al said...

Thank you for such kind words about our album.