Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Top 100 Albums - #30: Through The Windowpane (2006)

Multi-national indie rockers Guillemots make their only entry on the chart with their full-length debut, Through The Windowpane.
Fyfe Dangerfield began his musical career as the lead singer and songwriter for Senseless Prayer, a pop-rock band whose released a series of obscure EPs and received the support of John Peel. After the group folded in 1999, he began gigging in Birmingham as Fyfe Dangerfield & The Accident. After moving to London in 2002 to work as a music teacher, he recruited Brazilian-born MC Lord Magrão (guitar), Canadian-born Aristazabel Hawkes (double bass) and Londoner Greig Stewart (drums). The newly-formed Guillemots - who took their name from a seabird - released I Saw Such Things In My Sleep EP in September 2005, in a limited edition of 1000. Shortly after they went on tour, opening for Rufus Wainwright on his sell-out UK tour. Two other EPs followed quickly - Of The Night EP (2005) and the more successful From The Cliffs EP (2006), both released on Fantastic Plastic Records. As a result of these the band were included in the BBC Sound of 2006 survey, and clamour for a full-length record began to grow.¹

We kick off this charming slice of modern indie with 'Little Bear'. Anyone who was expecting frantic, highly strung riffs and shouty lyrics will get a big shock, because the first sounds drifting through the speakers are that of violins: violins which create a serene, Vaughan Williams intro. A successful preamble, it means that when Dangerfield does come in on piano, he stands no chance of sounding twee or self-absorbed. Like many indie singers, diction takes a back seat and so at first he is hard to fathom, but once you have negotiated through his brogue you are treated to a wonderful, heartfelt opener.

Having set the bar, the band smash through it with 'Made-Up Lovesong #43'. This song appears on both their previous EPs, so the difference in sound is not a huge surprise. But some features of 'Little Bear' remain, most of them contained in Dangerfield's delivery. His gently burbling organ serves as good juxtaposition for his yearning, passionate delivery. Stewart's drumming begins like squashed jazz before rapidly uncoiling after the first verse. This is not all that strong an effort from a lyrical point of view, but the vibes are good enough to disguise this.

With 'Trains To Brazil', however, there is no need for excuses. Here the drums are loud and funky, kicking up a solid and catchy rhythm over which Magrão can begin to work his magic. This is still Dangerfield's song though, through and through. On keys he provides a driven, 1970s-rock chord progression which again sits at an oddly good angle with his stricken melody. Vocally, he is more careful, reigning himself in from his looser moments; rather than mumble the lyrics, or shout them, he sings them. And he sings better than a lot of his contemporaries. The whole outfit are working together, playing off each other, and while the bass is somehow lost in the swirling mix, once you lock into it you realise how great it sounds.

'Redwings' opens like a Salvation Army band at Christmas, and turns into winter poetry. It may be a return to the tempo of 'Little Bear', but Dangerfield is clearer, in terms of diction and intent. The lyrics read like a poem rather than words to a song, which makes it all the more fitting that they are sung in a breathy, down-tone way. The smooth organ ebbs and flows in the background with the brass band, creating a soundscape within itself. It sounds a bit like 'The Nest That Sailed The Sky' (see my review of OVO (2000, #81)).
There is no sharp Latin beat to kick things up here; even the ending is downbeat and beautiful.

The first time this fourpiece drop the ball is on '
Come Away With Me'. As on previous tracks we get the wierd bird noises and the sumptuous organ soundscape. But unlike before there is nothing rhythmically solid for Dangerfield to lock into; the double bass is too jazzy and loose, and the drums are almost totally out of the picture, appearing in sporodic show-off segments. As a mood piece, this may work, but as a song, it has the feeling of filler. The title track, though, is much more like it. The drums have settled down, been clipped back and made more dynamic. The bass is more playful at the end of lines as Aristazabel creates some lovely touches to lighten the mood. Overall, this is another bright, informal song from a band which never takes itself too seriously.

After this rather childlike number, 'If The World Ends' seems like an overambitious jump. It's like you've come out of a Bangles gig at the interval, and when you came back in they'd been replaced by The Blue Nile. But don't be fooled - everything that made the last six tracks good is still there, albeit with the volume turned down. Dangerfield sounds at home, crooning lyrics about love in a manner akin to Paul Buchanan. And once again, the beautiful organ accompanies him, taking us to the waters' edge where our two lovers are lying in each other's arms.

'We're Here' begins with the same spaced-out, coastal organ that graced the last piece. Only this time, the tempo has been kicked back up, and the mood has changed to one of youthful optimism, perfectly captured in the first verse:

The world is our carpet now
The world is our dance floor now
Remind me how to dance again
The world is our carpet now

It's a song of hope and new beginnings, wrapped up in the blinding language of love. Dangerfield delivers his lyrics with a happy abandon that we have not seen up to now; he is singing with a huge smile on his face, which is exactly what we end up with after this.

'Blue Would Still Be Blue' counters the 'upper' that was the previous track with a series of four-note piano riffs which are designed to completely and utterly chill you. Played on what sounds like an e-piano, the notes bounce through the mix like raindrops rippling the surface of a lake. The lyrics may be trying to be too clever, with lines like
It's not raining cats, it's not raining dogs/ Pigs are not flying, or turning the cogs. But they retain a strange, almost ethereal beauty, due to Dangerfield's honest yearning into the mike.

'Annie, Let's Not Wait', meanwhile, is pure and simple pop. The guitars are jangly, the keyboards are kooky and off-the-wall, and Dangerfield is in happy-throwaway mode. It is only because of these inate and pleasing cheeriness that he can get away with the opening lines, I found something crying, it was my soul/ I fed it milk, so it wouldn't grow old. At heart, this is a cheerful, snappy, midsummer song, just on the right side of mainstream to avoid being instantly forgetable.

We have reached the final two tracks, and they are both distinctly odd. 'And If All...' is the shortest track on here, at only 1:19, and it reads a little like David Bowie's 'Eight Line Poem' (see my review of Hunky Dory (1971, #34). It segues out of the previous track and contains little in the way of interest or substance, reducing it to pure filler. 'São Paulo', on the other hand, is the longest track on the album, at a whopping 11:42. Beginning with waves and tinkling piano which are straight out of Quadrophenia (1973), it then morphs quickly into a Procol Harum-style piano piece backed by flugelhorn and tubular bells. The vast number of different sounds and tempo changes on show here almost make this a prog track, and mean that you need a wealth of patience to last the distance. But if you can, this piece is hugely rewarding, if a little overwhelming.

Through The Windowpane is an album of two halves. On the one hand, we have a selection of elegant, beautiful and avant-garde love songs, drawing inspiration from classical music and downbeat jazz. On the other hand, we have a series of bright, carefree and rich pop songs, still a little different to the indie humdrum, but not enough to make everyone notice. 'Trains To Brazil', the best track, is slap-bang in the middle, being both a great pop song and a remarkable piece of rock craftsmanship. On the follow-up, Red (2008), the band would gradually drift towards the pop end of the spectrum, but here there are still trying to figure out who they are. But despite this, the album never lurches from one style to another; it doesn't feel like a demo tape or a compilation. Much like Hunky Dory, its unity comes in the disparity and variety of the material on offer. The two very different kinds of songs are both played with the same unpredictable grace and hints of madness that the best bands have always had. Thus, even on its most mainstream moments, Through The Windowpane remains leftfield, unusual, and almost completely mad - making it a must-have who anyone interested in music.

3.92 out of 5

¹ 'Sound of 2006: The Top 10', BBC News: Entertainment (January 6 2006), http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/4514016.stm. Accessed on July 29 2008.

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