MARK NORTHFIELD: ‘Alterations.’
Let me firstly just quote from the sleeve notes:
‘‘Alterations’ consists of five almost-pop songs transformed into five almost-classical songs. In each case, I took a riff or theme from a song in the first half and used it for the basis for a song in the second half, forming the new pieces around these musical skeletons. There are also loose lyrical connections to be found in some cases.
The album is mirrored at the centre, so track 6 is derived from track 5, 7 from 4, 8 from 3, 9 from 2 and 10 from 1. Unlike the previous album, ‘Ascendant’ it is not exhaustively designed to be listened to from start to finish, even though the running order works well enough. It could just as easily be considered a set of five double A-side singles and listened to accordingly; the connections might make themselves a little more obvious that way.’
Get it? I didn’t; still don’t!
I just can’t see the relevance of the supposed connections between the tracks. But hey, it really doesn’t matter, for with a few exceptions (which I’ll get to eventually) this is a highly listenable and most importantly ‘different’ album.
I do agree however that the album is ‘split’ at the centre, with tracks one to five being the strongest and certainly the ones I’d prefer listening to. These are the songs that nicely blend classical music with popular music. But not in the sort of dramatic, almost camp manner of Rhydian, that welsh bloke who placed high in X-Factor or whatever. No, those songs that do have classical leanings seem to stay true to their roots but yet also embrace and indeed marry a more modern influence. It’s hard to say how or why, but it works.
Opening track ‘The Death Of Copyright’ is a bouncy little number, with a deep, background stomp interspersed with sharp little pulls on the violin creating a novel ‘hook.’ The tempo occasionally drops to give hints of the classical influences that will follow, but soon picks up again. Mark’s vocals are warm and clear and while he himself composed and arranged all the songs on the album, the talents of various others were enlisted on just about all the songs. Of note on this particular one are the vocals of Ellen Jakubiel who sings a verse in French, which is then followed by Mark slightly distorting his voice to sing the next in German!
‘Some Songs’ is more downbeat and operatic in its content. It’s dramatic enough; the vocals are bang on, and the backing vocals combining with the violin and general orchestration give it a particularly haunting feel. (But not for me, this one.)
‘You Don’t Need Me To Tell You That’ is a lovely song. Female / male vocals trade off each other over the top of lovely little piano runs. I’ve had a second opinion on this, and it does sound like a classical interpretation of a generic Beautiful South track.
I kind of struggle to describe ‘Nothing Impossible:’ it’s based around a chipper and catchy little piano riff, with clear, concise male vocals. It rocks along nicely, like an upbeat Billy Joel track – only better (I’m not a fan!) – with a bouncy beat and handclaps!
My favourite track on the album is ‘Headlonging.’ A constant piano arpeggio runs throughout, with dark, brooding cello strokes providing the base for a hushed but frantic and troubled-sounding vocal that barely stops for breath. As the track progresses this vocal is somewhat smothered by a loud, choral backing and increased orchestration. You can sense the tension and frustration of one losing control of their mind and disappearing down a vortex of confusion and torment. (The song’s probably nothing to do with this interpretation, but that’s how I see it anyway!)
And so we come to my less-favoured second half.
‘The Up Shit Creek Blues’ deserves to be liked simply because of its title, and in fact it is actually OK. Sultry, bluesy female vocals with violins and piano do however give it the feel of something akin to Eartha Kitt jamming with Shirley Bassey.
‘Reminders, Remind’ is pretty classy though. Quintessentially English, I’d say! Piano and violin provide the backing with the vocals delivered as a spoken word piece. I was never a Genesis fan, but this is the kind of thing I’d have thought they would have done in their early days.
‘Paradise By Numbers,’ is one I lost patience with, I’m afraid. It’s too downbeat and really not much fun-sounding and though it does build in intensity towards the latter third, it doesn’t seem to go anywhere – at least if it does, it left without me. ‘Aurora’ makes amends in part though. It’s based along a sort of Romany feel – all very gypsy violins and stamping beats. The backing is like from a very stern sounding male voice choir from theVolta, with the mood lightening at various points with accordion and handclaps.
‘The Forecaster’ closes the album with a very operatic sounding song. I have never been to aWest End musical, but I would imagine this type of song / performance is the kind you’d expect in something dramatic like ‘The Phantom Of The Opera’ or something.
I’ve just realised how much I’ve written about an album that is unlikely to find its way onto my personal playlist! Subconsciously, I must like it! I’ll tell you sumat, though – it’s certainly well worth a listen!
(Released through Substantive Recordings on 28th May 2012)