Friday, September 26, 2008

Erudite English Eccentricity: Wild Beasts and Simon Bookish

I'm back (after a rather pathetic bout of sinus infection - I'm of the firm belief that I do not have an immune system and should just be confined to a wicker wheelchair with consumption), and this post is about one of the reasons I love English music: English eccentricity. It seems English musicians, and I suppose English artists in general, have the knack for the arcane, the offbeat and the witty. It's why I love Stephen Fry. And why I'm enjoying reading Tristram Shandy right now. It would be perfectly all right to collect both theremins and butterflies in England. The very idea of having something called a folly makes the English seem particuarly eccentric. So, this post will be a bit of a long, double-barrelled one to make up for any wrongs felt by those of you who expected more this week. You get album reviews for both Wild Birds' Limbo Panto and Simon Bookish's Everything/Everything. That should set everything right again.

Wild Beasts, a band from the Cumbrian market town of Kendal, has been around for the past six years, but has more recently set up base in Leeds and released three demo EPs before ultimately signing a deal with Domino Records. Their debut album, Limbo Panto, was released in June of this year in the UK, but is yet to be officially released in North America. With their extravagant falsetto vocals and style shifts, they fall somewhere between Klaus Nomi, Sparks and Scritti Politti with occasional flashes of the offbeat feel of Orange Juice. Vocalist Hayden Thorpe's voice can pitch between helium-inflected operatics and raspy howls and growls akin to Julian Casablancas, giving the record a schizophrenic atmosphere that somehow works. And I've got to love a band whose lead singer, when asked if he's ever been starstruck, answers no, but adds, "“Although The Horrors came down to one show in London, you could see their hair in the crowd. But that was less a star-struck moment than a 'wanting-to-strike-a-star' moment.”

Album opener Vigil for a Fuddy Duddy is driven by a tom tom drumbeat with a laidback soulfulness that feels retro and permeates the entire record. The lyrics describe a sexual encounter in all its sweaty, clumsy detail. The Club of Fathomless Love rocks like a more violent operetta with dramatic shifts between airy waltz and cabaret as Thorpe desperately sings "I'm not a soft touch and I won't be seen as such, so full with fierce fathomless love." I'm a sucker for apt alliteration, and Wild Beasts use it often. One of my favourite tracks is The Devil's Crayon, which features a tropical beat that verges on tribal in places and which uses clinking guitar and the lower register of Thorpe's vocals, reminding me more of Orange Juice - the tune ends up sounding like an art rock Copa Cabana. Woebegone Wanderers is yet another track that shifts between time signatures and styles, alternating between lazy psychedelic and 3/4 merry-go-round. The Old Dog gives me a feeling of 70's airport lounge music while Thorpe's vocal quavers even more than usual on lines like "We are liberal and we are civil and life is futile." Please Sir is a hilarious tune with 50's style arpeggios akin to Chainless Melody in which the student narrator begs forgiveness from his headmaster:

Please, Sir let me return, if only for a term (how I yearn)
It’s glee, Sir, with your hot breath upon me (gob gurning in fury)
But…I only winded that lad before he bolted
And…I only fumbled that lass, besides, I was revolted

...and eventually offering, "Take these chips with cheese as an offering of peace." His Grinning Skull feels like a surreal twist on speaking to Yorick's skull with brilliant lines like "his skull wears cuckold's horns" (that are pushing through the soil) and "I'll eat this young whelp's heart, I will." It features a punchier rhythm, but a more ominous tone as it seems the corpse will be exhumed in a raid on the grave. She Purred While I Grrrd is a Hawaiian-tinged, yet slinky melody with truly honest words about what the narrator wants his girl for.

Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants, while being fantastically alliterative once again, was their first single released under a deal with Bad Sneakers Records and has a catchy bassline that supports the rapid changes between an inflated preening and a dirty underbelly. It is an atypical youth anthem praising carpe diem in an erudite manner: "Swig the bottle, bottle/Slap the face of Aristotle/Race me, Race me, Race me, Race me/In yer fourth hand jalopy." The album ends with Cheerio Chaps, Cheerio Goodbye, which sounds like a bizarre public school song and suits the posh but cheeky atmosphere of the record as a whole. The clear love of words and language stays strong right until the end with lyrics like "Be blasted or be lambasted instead/don't render me the sorriest parody."

Simon Bookish (real name: Leo Chadburn) is a classically trained musician, who also works in sound installations and theatre, and who, as his nom de plume suggests, is well-read and equally as erudite as Wild Beasts. His music began with very experimental electronically-based songs, but he then progressed through further experimentalism with Trainwreck/Raincheck, an album which was described as a "surreal electronic radio play" and which has spoken word elements that remind me of Jarvis Cocker's deadpan delivery minus the Yorkshire accent. Simon Bookish's new album, Everything/Everything, isn't due out until October 21 in Canada (according to, but I must impress upon you all that it is worth pre-ordering and waiting for. Though Bookish has released two previous albums and several other EPs/remixes/singles over the past few years, this is his first album for German label Tomlab and it is a multi-instrumental score to accompany humanity's obsession with science and empircal information and the impending overload and self-induced lunacy. There is a definite similarity between Simon Bookish and Patrick Wolf (who has worked with Bookish in the past), especially in terms of experimentalism and English eccentricities, but where Wolf has a rather glam, whimsical persona like Kate Bush or David Bowie, Bookish reminds me more of Talking Heads.

Opening track The Flood, which apparently David Byrne has been promoting, begins with a royal flourish of trumpets which somehow meld perfectly with futuristic chants as persistent as binary code. Bookish's deep, rich voice complements the frenetic music backing him as he sings about humanity's inevitable drowning in the technology it has built. Dumb Terminal, which has been provided for download by Pitchfork, ambles along, but then enters a quicker movement in which clarinet squeaks and squawks in a chaotic cacophony. Portrait of the Artist as a Fountain is a quirky tune about an artist riding off into the sunset with lyrics of an Edward Lear-like nature. The chorus of woodwinds that explode from its core is more evidence of Bookish's classical training and composition abilities. Carbon is a frantic, apocalyptic paean to an element capable of so many uses, and Bookish's smooth, self-assured vocals swoop up and over the choppy music. Victorinox, which is named after a knife manufacturer, begins as a more stately, sure-footed track with muted brass and tinkling glockenspiel accents before veering into yet another unexpected direction with Bookish spitting out brilliantly poetic lyrics about mind control with clinical precision: "better beware the groundswell/better beware the hard sell/what did you hear/a death knell/step on up/kiss farewell/to poverty/for enmity/your sophistry/of your fallacy."

In a dramatic change in both style and tempo, Il Trionfo Del Tempo...(Ridley Road) is a medieval-sounding track with plucked strings and choir-like vocals, but it has discordant moments that interrupt the steady flow of predicted tones. Synchrotron, named for a type of particle accelerator, is a funky, sax-led melody on which Bookish sounds like a Willy Wonka trapped in an astrophysicist's laboratory. Technology is the culprit here, too, as Bookish outlines what it can do to atoms, but also what it cannot do - namely, feed the starving people of the world. The track cycles around itself so quickly that it feels like it's flying apart by the end, breaking into its own neutrinos. A Crack in Larsen C pulls back the insanity into a calmer, contemplative piano piece as Bookish gently muses on how far a person can improve him/herself and compares it to the current man-made disasters, including the melting of the Larsen C iceshelf.

Alsatian Dog takes us back to the funky symphony of Synchrotron (with hints of Sufjan Stevens) and pokes fun at the intellectual arrogance of humanity as Bookish sings, "a juggernaut crashes into the lexicon," which taunts people by saying "you can't define me." The compulsive human need for defining, classifying and labelling that the Enlightenment brought to its apex is mirrored in Bookish's urgent, scattershot vocals that interrogate a specimen until language itself ceases to mean anything. A New Sense of Humour begins as a sleazier, slower track that initially sounds a bit JAMC, but then speeds up and struts as Bookish satirizes the all-consuming effect of the television on people. The narrator of the track doesn't even know him/herself anymore and which category he/she fits into, and the track eventually peters out like the waning attention of an ADHD world. The last track of the album is appropriately titled Colophon and injects the last bit of existential crisis into the record, hoping to re-write the history of humankind, especially its last testament. As Bookish's final analogy plays out, he states that it's "not too late to save ourselves."

Wild Beasts and Simon Bookish push and pull at the possibilities of musical style and structure while equally stretching the limits of thought and imagination. They manage to use Stephen Fry's love of language in all its variety and possibility with musical digression and whimsy on par with Tristram Shandy. Very English indeed.

The Devil's Crayon - Wild Beasts

Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants - Wild Beasts

Synchrotron - Simon Bookish

A New Sense of Humour - Simon Bookish


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