City Paper is not for tourists
“For optimum listening pleasure with this LP, please record onto cassette with the record levels way too high and then play back and you will find that a suitable extra layer of distortion has been created.” So read the liner notes to the eponymous debut by Bristol, England’s, Flying Saucer Attack. When the album came out, in 1993, that kind of approach to ambient music was fashionablebut it always pissed me off. I spent $12 on your record and you want me to finish it up for you?!?
But Flying Saucer Attack made it easy to overlook such precious demands on the listener, mostly because buried under the layers of distortion the band bothered to create itself were some half-decent songswhich, for me at least, are easier to bond with than 10-minute washes of feedback. True, those songs didn’t always trump the album’s overall lost-in-the-ether sound, but the inclusion of a sarcastic cover of Suede’s “The Drowners” at least suggested that the band had a sense of humor about it all. And in the ever-expanding universe of space rock, that gesture alone was enough to make FSA seem like a major discovery.
On the group’s next proper album, 1995’s Further, Saucer mainstays David Pearce and Rachel Brook shaved the fuzz off their songsan intriguing decision, given that their writing immediately proved to be, well, half-decent. Still, the arrangements carried the day, and the rest of the band’s career would be defined by these swings between overwrought whooshing noises and underdeveloped folk ditties. Brook split in 1997 to concentrate on her side project, Movietone; Pearce made a couple more FSA albums before quietly letting the band fade away in 2000.
After three years of silence, Pearce is back in the ambience game with Clear Horizon, a postal collaboration with Ohio-based singer Jessica Bailiff, who has also guested on records by such fellow travelers as Rivulets and Low. Clear Horizon’s own eponymous debut LP opens a lot like FSA’s: a poorly recorded guitar, a distant drone, a simple melody staggering its way through the fog. Bailiff supplies most of the bass with breathy vowels: “Spinning inside/It’s melting away,” she intones, lending a sense of gravity to what I think is an account of a trip to the beach. Pearce’s acoustic strumming lends some rhythm, though it’s hardly of the bumpin’ variety.
“Distortion Song,” by contrast, dispenses with rhythm altogether, leaving Bailiff to sing what sounds like the same melody over a little less guitar and lot more reverb. And that’s pretty much the gamut of sound on this low-key little record. Clear Horizon is consistent to a fault: wash, drone, repeat with varying degrees of nondanceability. “Death’s Dance” adds a darkly medieval flavor to the formula, “For Days” and “A Child’s Eyes” a lightly folky one. “Sunrise Drift” includes some twinkly bell or wind-chime thingies for that genuine Pier 1 feel.
To be fair, Clear Horizon does include an intriguing moment or two. Album-closer “Open Road,” for example, is a vintage-FSA-style psychedelic thumper that plays with an oversaturated drumbeat and a tentative but gorgeous piano line. And the instrumental “Dusk” pushes the band’s aesthetic about as far as it can go, wrapping whining drones around the speakers for a good seven minutes.
It’s tracks like those that make me almost wish that this album had come with DIY liner notes, too: When it comes to converting their few good ideas into good songs, Pearce and Bailiff could really use our help.
Movietone fares a bit better on its fourth album, The Sand and the Stars. Recorded on beaches, in a warehouse, and in a church, it comes across like a rough sketch of a Pram record, with singer Kate Wright’s pitch-defying warble dominating the proceedings. Wright and Brook (who’s now married and using the last name Coe) don’t fall back on hazy drones to make their pointsomehow their willfully inept instrumentation conveys a sense of space on its own, be it via bubbling banjo, wheezing accordion, or palm-swirled wineglass. With the help of multi-instrumentalist bandmates Chris Cole, Matt Jones, and Sam Jonesas well as a host of piano-, trumpet-, clarinet-, and whatnot-playing collaboratorsthe pair pulls off any number of brief sonic successes: the imaginary travelogue of “In Mexico,” the mutated folk song of “Red Earth,” the parts of “Pale Tracks” that sound more like a drunken sorta-waltz than an aimless slog.
But at no point does the album’s forced sense of whimsy become overwhelmed by poignancy or honesty. Playing half-improvised songs with a minimum of musicianship in an attempt to democratize music is one thing; playing an instrument for years without figuring out how to make the thing conjure some emotional resonance is another. Instead, Movietone makes the barest use of song structure without discarding it altogether, building pieces around four- or five-note melodies, repeating guitar figures, and tinkling piano lines. If it sounds pointless, it isthough the recording quality on The Sand and the Stars is quite good: Sometimes it feels as if you’re in the same room as somebody making a crappy album.
More affected than effective, both Clear Horizon and Movietone trade impact for intransigence, with the result that for all their pastoral leanings they sound totally artificial. Hanging a bunch of primitivist textures on partially formed tunes may alienate all but the most enlightened (read: determined) listeners, but it also ignores a basic space-rock tenet: The happy accident is a worthwhile goal. Some achieve it by mindless jamming, others by studio trickery. Flying Saucer Attack used to rely on listeners’ stereo equipment to add that certain je ne sais quoi. Nowadays, Pearce and Coe don’t seem to care whether you’re listening or not. CP