Wednesday, 9 May 2012

"Midnight At The Sycamore Lounge" Review

Long-awaited is an oft used term isn’t it? It is one that is completely relative. Waiting for the kettle to boil can seem like forever. A bus ride into town on a stinking hangover can feel like three lifetimes. But this record, St Gregory Orange’s second, fits the term perfectly.

Rhubarb Bomb first previewed it sometime in 2010. It was then expected in Spring 2011 in time for the unveiling of the new four piece live setup at Long Division. Another deadline slipped. Although that was perhaps the problem; there wasn’t really a deadline. It’d be ready when it was ready.

So it feels great have it in front of me, finally. For those unfamiliar with the band, the first record Things We Said In Bedrooms was recorded by Tim Metcalfe in his home studio and released in March 2009 on the then fledgling Philophobia Music. Not long after Harry Rhodes joined the ‘band’ and work on a follow up began.

In various previews Tim had hinted that the soundscaping of that first record would be replaced with a combination of pop songs and monolithic bursts of noise. So the initial surprise with Midnight… is that it isn’t the radical departure expected, at least immediately.

Songs leading gently into one another creating a sense of a consistent narrative is the most obvious comparison. But the vocals in particular are way more upfront that the previous record and vary greater in style than the heartbroken mumble of album one, with harmonies and backing vocals / counter melodies from Harry. Though the mood across the record isn’t a monumental shift, this more direct approach will certainly allow the record to reach more people. I don’t want to say it is more accessible because that suggest it was designed that way. It is more a natural progression from the bedroom based nature of the first record – both in its sounds and themes – to something more willing to make a connection to the world outside the window.

The classic St Gregory Orange sound of the clicking beats and whirls of sound are still present but they are joined by classic pop stings of artificial string sections, wall of sound reverb and acoustic guitars. The latter is the most important in giving the record a different feel. It hints at the simplicity at the core of these songs and how they have been slowly thought out and pondered over across a number of years. There is more substance at the core of what is going on. Soundscaping is wonderful but it can also be lazy. These gentle suggestions / reminders of the central songwriting at work are a subtle connection to the more human nature of the record and are also responsible for some uncharacteristically upbeat moments.

Salem AM is the most immediate track on the record and a good example of this direct and confident approach. It has an unashamed gleam to it that helps add pathos (a much more subtle form of misery, right?) to the complex lyrical considerations. These poppier moments are slotted throughout the record, amongst barer moments like Obituaries, Northeastern which replicates a disturbed mornings’ gloaming with a hallucinogenic, swirling backing. Aidan Moffat esqe spoken word tells a tale full of vivid details and Cocker-like observations.

Blotter (Swallowing Keys) shows another side to St Gregory Orange’s sound; bigger computerised beats mixed in with squiggly, unsettling Kid A effects and glitchy asides whilst the tail end of the album sees a sad settling, a resigned sigh settle over the album which allows for some of the most beautiful and reserved moments on the album, seen in by Sorry Is Easy’s much simpler approach. It’s a pleasing break from the large production elsewhere, involving a gentle, drifting piano and keyboard over the sound of people outside with the birds.

Pleasingly, Midnight… sidesteps the trend for short, thirty minute records and confidently spreads its wings across almost an hour of exploration. It doesn’t overstay its welcome but it does demand care and patience. Attention to detail is the key here and is the justification for the length of time it took to create. Sonically and lyrically, details are hidden and revealed after many listens, but the widescreen production and pop elements means that it is never a chore to endure.

Truth is, I’ve not given it the time is deserves yet, and I’ve been listening for four weeks. I’ve not even had time to discuss the lyrically contributions. They’d probably fill a book if written out and are rather wonderful, taking pleasure or finding sadness in the multiple wonders you can experience in life, much like David’s Last Summer by Pulp. In that sense it is a rather detailed but complicated document, tied with riddles, of existing and growing up / old in the universe right now.

And that’s the thing for me. Much of the record deals with friendships and groups of friends finding themselves with little left in common. It happens to us all as we grow but it isn’t usually down to some big event. It is the tiny decisions we make each day. Like a sprawling decision tree of everything we’ve ever done over our lives laid before us, those small, seemingly inconsequential decisions slowly move us away from people we thought we had so much in common with. St Gregory Orange, with their long gestation period on this record, have done the same thing. Every ache over the construction of a beat, the rhythm of a line or the structure of a song has moved them further and further from their peers. The final product justifies each of their decisions: no one else in the world could have made this record.

If Midnight… was released by an established artist it would be fawned upon and picked apart and declared a work of great accomplishment. It’s almost like it is too good, too soon. Much like this review, itself a long time coming, it is long and not always straight to the point. But after all these years I feel they deserve at least something quotable, rather than my lengthy attempts to solve the puzzle they have laid before me, so well done St Gregory Orange, and here you go: “A work of wonder and endlessly collapsing beauty from one of the country’s most unique and engaging bands”

Dean Freeman

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