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)
Jeez! Is it really over a year since I reviewed Edinburgh band LETTERS’ debut single, ‘Grand National’?
Maybe it’s because they have such a distinctive sound that it seems like no time at all. Maybe it’s because they created such an impression with that earlier offerering that I recall it so vividly. Whatever, the five-piece are back again, cello and all, to impress even further.
The title track to this new EP shows just how far the band have come in the ensuing time – even though they really did hit the ground running last year. ‘Older Motion Pictures’ has a more mature sound to it. The cello, around which LETTERS seem to build their songs, still holds centre stage but rather than create a dark or threatening atmosphere it is used this time in conjunction with the piano to create depth, evoking a certain pathos. The vocals are slightly hushed, warm and distinctive but don’t attempt to usurp the drama of the instruments (something I feel some bands / vocalists are errantly inclined towards) and in doing so LETTERS effortlessly present a hugely classy and anthemic sounding track.
Are slow-paced songs capable of also being ‘catchy’? I think LETTERS have just answered that one.
(Digitally released through God Is In The TV Records on 19th May 2012)
A few months ago, we reviewed the debut ‘double-A-sided’ single by Edinburgh five-piece LETTERS, and our considered opinion thus:
‘I know it’s early days, and very hard to judge a band with such a distinctive sound on the strength of only two songs. However, if they can find enough variation in sound to fill their live set and an album’s worth of songs, then I’m sure LETTERS will soon spell success.’
OK – so putting the cheesiness of that rather bold statement to one side for a moment, how does the follow-up ‘Flash! Lights’ stack up?
Well, I’d say it stacks up high enough to put the debut ‘Grand National’ firmly in the shade! Sure, it’s down to personal preferences, but I happen to think that if you’re using a cello as a key instrument in any band, and use it to it’s full effect, the piece has really got to be moody and dark. Or totally ‘experimental’ noise, perhaps. But it’s the former that LETTERS go for here.
However, ‘Flash! Lights,’ is by no means a morose trek through dirge city. There is a constant beat bouying the song along and vocalist Michael Ferguson’s relaxed vocal style is beautifully harmonised by (I’m guessing) cellist Georgie. Whoever ….
The track builds almost imperceptibly for the first three quarters of its duration before erupting into a full-on orchestrated soundrack of a climax.
Anyway – here it is! (And it’s available NOW as a free download, presumably from the band’s website.)
I’d definitely keep an eye and ear out for these guys in the coming months.
(Available now – July 2011.)
(9 / 10)
LETTERS are a brand, spanking new five-piece band from Edinburgh. Having formed as recently as ‘in the winter’ of 2010 (which in Edinburgh could be anytime from September onwards) they have lost no time at all in producing their first recording for consideration of the masses, with this ‘double-A’ side being issued on a free download basis ahead of full physical EP release in April 2011.
And what a strong, enjoyable, different and promising debut offering it is. Classy as well!
There are not many bands around who utilise the dark, brooding sound of a cello to bolster the bass lines and create a rather foreboding sound. Those who do would probably be lumped together by many commentators as following the successful path beaten by some more illustrious Canadian troubadours.
But on the evidence of these two songs, I’d say that any such list should not include the name of LETTERS. This one somehow begs to be different.
‘Grand National,’ starts out in a dark and haunted place, with the depth of the cello offset only by the light vocal style of singer Michael Ferguson. However, after a minute, the drums kick in, creating a lively, though still relatively gentle but bouncy feel that is accentuated by some quite delicious harmonies. It almost sounds like a face-off between light and dark; good and bad; happy and sad. The vocals are soft and the backing almost choral sounding at times. Ever constant however is the resonance of the cello as it competes for superiority with the guitars. But the only winner here is the listener who is treated to song that if produced by, say, Plain White Ts or a band of that ilk, would have national radio stations competing for the claim of having ‘discovered’ them!
‘Pipe Dreams’ does follow a similar style, I have to confess although the bass lines are a bit more prominent and the song itself has that little bit extra ‘gusto,’ as it builds in volume and depth as it progresses from its earlier, more hushed Enya-like beginnings.
I know it’s early days, and very hard to judge a band with such a distinctive sound on the strength of only two songs. However, if they can find enough variation in sound to fill their live set and an album’s worth of songs, then I’m sure LETTERS will soon spell success. (God – did I really write that last cheesy line?!)
(Released as a ‘free to download’ single on 16th February 2011)
(8.5 / 10)