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Artist: movietone                                   Release Date: spring 1995
Label: Planet Records                                       Running time: 41m 22s

Featuring:
Kate Wright - vocals / guitar / tape recorder
Rachel Brook - bass / vocals / guitar
Ros Walford - clarinet
Matt Elliott - guitar
Clare Ring - double bass
~:~
Arranged, Engineered & Produced by Movietone
All songs recorded September 12th/13th 1994

Musical Context :

      1993, warm summer in Britain for the music festivals, pretty rainy up north though. Peace talks with Ireland well under way, though things were still fairly tense, and Major’s government still well in place. Things were still fairly quiet around Bristol though ~ sport seemed to be the biggest thing on the go. Massive Attack had shuffled off to London after all, and no one had thought to give much more thought to the city’s music scene at the time. Meanwhile, a host of college bands were forming, swapping members and breaking up. Rachel Brook left Flying Saucer Attack to start the band with guitarist Matt Elliot of the Third Eye Foundation. The first single She Smiled Like Mandarine (Planet, 1994) was a fairly unabashed nod to the Velvet Underground, while their second 7" Mono Valley (1995) was a rambling, noisy and discordant bit of Pram-like noodling. Brook is the primary composer and lyricist for the group (after living under the Roy Montgomery shadow of her partner Dave Pearce in FSA, both refugees from a failed experimental band called Lynda’s Strange Vacation).1 She writes free association ballads ~ half-sung, half-spoken, which frequently sound like their being recorded while she walks down the street or stares out window.2 Call it dictaphonal - so that the sound lands somewhere between the lyrics of evocative automatic writing of Underworld’s lyrics, the piano, strings and clarinet of the Rachel’s and the bliss-out aesthetic of bardo pond.3 They followed their eponymous 1995 debut with Night and Day in 1997 & The blossom filled streets (both picked up by Drag City records).
      Ignoring for a moment trip hop entirely, while other Bristol indie bands like AMP, FSA, and the Third Eye Foundation have received a heap more attention in the following years, released five full albums each along with numerous side projects and singles, movietone remained a fairly low key occasional affair ~ most likely on account of their wonkier, unusual sound. The other two groups remained relatively easy to categorise (FSA: bliss-out drone rock, TEF: FSA with samplers and a drum machine) - which seemed to suit a certain quarter of the record buying public at the time (ca. 1996-1997). However, with widening ripples of postrock (with all its theoretical underpinnings of jazz), a folk-classical outfit like Movietone seems to be in a much better position, especially with the warm reception given a band like Looper ~ whom they resemble quite a bit, if you took away the Scottish accents and break beats, replacing them with eight track recorders and stringed instruments.

What’s it sound like though?

      The debut album jumps frequently from icy quiet to clanging frenetic in mid-song, indeed even mid-bar. With maracas shaking, droning guitar, screeching amps and detached vocals, the record opens up with a distinctly VU-flavour ~ the guitar solos grind nicely. From there, however, the record gets increasingly up-close, as if the first track was an obligatory showpiece, moving into a blurry, imagist territory of off-the-cuff voices, clarinet solos and abrupt endings. Other songs take advantage of the sonorous double bass and Wright’s confessional sounding voice to create a forlorn, abandoned intimacy ~ like Late July, a long fragile enumerated list of things that sparked two people’s connexion, half-sung, half-whispered over a single, simple acoustic guitar riff. Which isn’t to say they don’t go in for the rock out feedback moments as well, but they’re sparing. Despite all the heavy instrumentation occasionally apparent in their sound, the band’s most likely analogue (though neither would likely embrace the comparison) would be Beth Orton, particularly their newest release.

Say, for the sake of argument, I love the record? What else might I try?

      Their other two records are, in my estimation, as good or technically better than their debut ~ with the blossom filled streets being the most recent.4 I choose the debut only because it's a personal fave, eponymous and their most tricky/experimental listen. Their second 1997 outing Day and Night (this time recorded wholly on eight track) is even more atmospheric, 'filmic' even; exploiting the strings and piano for even more drama in their instrumental pieces. To my atonal ear, the jazzy, free-form sound actually prefigures the most recent direction of stereolab, Sound-dust, which is also great if this sort of weird ambient pop does it for you.5 They're also frequently reminiscent of a low-fi version of Broadcast (ca. The noise made by people) or the Ceefax record by Fridge ~ both recorded four or five years later. Finally, Stina Nordenstam's 1994 And She Closed Her Eyes bookends all these records quite well.

The Songs:
1. Chance is Her Opera - 4:53       ~ a marching psychedelic guitar carrying along string of cryptic manifesto-like lyrics about what music can do - hypnotize, underlie, underline ( music is strings around the neck / music is drumbeat hands outstretched) ~
2. Heatwave Pavement - 3:48       ~ these plaintiff recorded snippets, complete with coughing and reel-to-reel tape distortion, by Wright over guitar and clarinet, can only be from a diary - which sounds precious as all hell - but the phrases themselves are so strange it actually comes off beautifully - ‘...he smiled, it was like the Mediterranean, blue and green, the tide...’ ~
3. Green Ray - 1:53       ~ the guitar and double bass here are perfectly flubbed in parts, just as the singing gets a bit beyond the comfort level, sounding a bit like a brit Nico doing a Tim Buckley cover - "...keeping pace against the light in my head... - fantastically sad stuff ~
4. Orange Zero - 6:35       ~ this one badly loses the plot, breaking into extended noise rock Merzbow bursts of feedback, topped off by a clarinet - not a good idea ~
5. Late July - 4:11       ~ a perfectly executed post-modern guitar ballad, wherein Wright runs down an impressionistic list of images - “... tearing up poems in green light ...” - each enumerated as if part of a paint-by-numbers. This track, more than any other on the album, absolutely nails the forlorn feeling of living too long in a chilly seaside town ~
6. Darkness-Blue Glow - 5:14       ~ Funereal dirge of booming, echoing piano, sparse guitar and grim, dangling percussion - closer to moroseness of the swans or death in June - the grimmest moment of the record ~
7. Mono Valley - 4:41       ~ a noir-ish slow-building attack, which could only have been recorded in part in some abandoned pier or warehouse filled with fluttering pigeons, featuring a great deal of smashing glass and rolling cans ~
8. Coastal Lagoon - :23       ~ tapping feet? ~
9. Alkaline Eye - 2:03       ~ the bands first single, with Wright still not entirely sure of her own voice, but again with the mention of neon signs and telegraph wires ~
10. 3AM Walking Smoking Talking - 4:13       ~ another strong theatrical number complete with ticking clocks and skipping phonograph - ‘...yes I’ll die in front of you / my necks already broken...’ - which sounds in part closer to the dream-like distortion of more recent mogwai or early yo la tengo ~
11. Three Fires - 3:37       ~ an unevenly grand, wrenching, orchestral finish - or as David Keenan writes in The Wire “...leaves you feeling so nostalgic for places you've never been.” ~
12. Hidden Track - 1:07       ~ gorgeous throwaway on taking in early morning sunlight recorded in what sounds to be the bottom of a well ~

Notes:
1 Kate and Rachel began playing together at seventeen, 'shouting down big rolls of carpet' & bashing snooker cues. They couldn't exactly play their own instruments at that point; be wary when a band records two minutes of silly trumpet playing over the sounds of breaking glass (Mono Valley) while offering in interviews, “I think it's a danger to make music for an audience - if there is going to be any truly new music then people must erase all opinion except their own and listen to what's coming directly from themselves.”
2 Clarinets warbling, looming violas, chiming clocks: this may not sound like your thing, but if you hear the stop/start-clicking of the tape recorder diarising and ‘crimson and clover’ guitar in Heatwave Pavement a few times, it gets pleasantly stuck in your head.
3 Though a lot of experimental seventies’ bands get their names dropped in their reviews (Can, Faust & Popol Vuh apparently influenced everyone) , Galaxie 500's This is our Music or Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation seem the best contemporaneous parallels, though Wright seems inspired by light and space than sound: 'places and architecture, different colours of light and shade through the day are massive influences to me... the whitewashed walls near the sea front in Brighton at night, good blue against white. The night sky. The egg boulder beach at Land's End peninsula...the influence that these places have affect my mood, enhance it. They are images that I associate with certain feelings.' Call it dancing about architecture, but be warned - another local Bristol music critic opined, 'the plucked acoustic guitar, viola, tape hiss, and forlorn schoolgirl vocal clash like Katharine Hepburn and Ron Jeremy in a John Woo production,' which can make for some complicated listening (John Dugan, Bristol City Pages, Oct. 25, 2000).
4 This self-title first recording will be a little tricky to find - since Planet records dumped the band way back when and they were later picked up by Domino. If you can find it, and you even remotely like the Cranes, say, or The For Carnation, you really ought to grab it. However, if on the other hand you find other Bristol outfits (like, say, Portishead) a little too inward looking, twee and/or apolitical ~ 'a fucking green light to apathy, a nod to just getting on with your own life, an open door to the end of critique' ~ then avoid this & most other records I’ve ever mentioned like the plague.*
* Quoted, incidentally, from the I Hate Music column (http://www.freakytrigger.co.uk/hate.html) of Tanya Headon, one very cinder & ash, wrathfully critical woman. Name any band of significance, she disembowels them. Her take, for example, on Napalm Death: “...thrash metal is a misunderstood genre, but I understand it perfectly. It sounds crap because it is crap...played by people who want to be hard, edgy and scary, but don't even eat dairy cos it might hurt a wickle cows teat,” or Stereolab, "...ba ba ba ba ba ba ba socialism ba ba ba ba ba ba." She dismisses entire record companies, genres even, in single paragraphs. She practically disinters Nick Drake just in order to tear a strip off him. Truly Awful. Top notch.
5 If not, don't go near the new stereolab. It is an exceedingly odd recording (owing, once more, to the production of John McEntire from Tortoise) that take at least three or four listens to even begin to make any sense of. It comes far closer to what we're used to hearing from Laika, for example, than anything else they've done. As for movietone's latest work, they've added cello, viola and cubist bass to their line-up, growing evermore polished, while they continue to evoke Bristol with its 'salt in the air', the 'aquamarine in the ocean' and 'the cinema on the triangle with the tea halls' while The Last Tycoon, F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished novel, inspires one of their songs (1930's beach house) and faded polaroid shots of all their instruments, in various poses, around what one assumes to be the band members' rather crampled-looking flats, also grace the cover book...

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