Record Review: It’s Immaterial Album Shimmers After Almost 30 Years Tucked Away In A Closet [part 3]

whitehead + campbell

L-R: Whitehead + Campbell ©2020 Moira Kenney

[…continued from last post]

We just reviewed an album with a song titled “Tell Me Why” and here’s another one already in our queue. The songs could not be more different. Only the ubiquitous early 90s shuffle beat points back to this song’s origins. The abstract synths gently pulling us into the song were out of the Callum Malcolm playbook and redolent of the sound he brought as producer to The Blue Nile. But the matter-of-fact, conversational tone of John Campbell was always a very different kettle of fish to the more heart wrenching approach of Paul Buchanan. But a listen to the lyrics here showed that though his manner and delivery differed from Buchanan, his words were recounting a time when “you heart stays out all night” and aiming to repair the damage from a straying. The big difference came down to the reserve that Campbell brought to the mic.

“Up On The Roof” was a heartfelt song of remembrance with a rare hint of electric guitar on an album that was primarily acoustic among the delicate washes of synths. The band made a rare call back to their signature song with “The Gift Of Rain” sporting the most urgent and mototik beat here, as Campbell recounted a car journey of a fundamentally different kind to the one in “Driving Away From Home.” The chorus here even paid heed to the differences between the songs.

“Sweet journey home
Along the northern highways
Sweet memories carry me home” – “The Gift Of Rain”

The tentative piano notes that began “I Can’t Sleep” were a perfect evocation of tapping your partner on the shoulder as Campbell said “wake up… wake up, Francine.” Relating how the heat in that night put the notion of a night’s sleep off the table. No, this was the time for a swim to cool down. The sustained string patches suspended time as the ambient harmonics took the song off of the pop path to something a little more abstract. Sounding much like the acoustics beneath the pier at the song’s Jackson Sound. The song was as much an environmental as an emotional portrait and the breakdown in the coda seemed to want to go on forever… until the song surprised with a quick fade.

More motorik  rhythmic urgency was found on “In My Dreams” along with subtle, jazzy, acoustic guitar licks. The swelling sustained string chords were a perfect evocation of the rising sun of the song’s chorus. The shimmering synths leading into the chorus added just the right amount of necessary tension to the ultimately languid vibe of the song.

The closing “How Can I Tell You” presented a scenario that seemed like an admission of guilt for a wrong committed that the French woman [Moira Kenney] on the phone with the singer had no knowledge of yet. She interjected “what have you done?” in French throughout the song as a spoken interlude and rhythmic device. As the song progressed, the mention of a promise broken by the call itself advanced to protestations of innocence and a de-escalation of the unnamed action to something less than a sin. Ultimately, the singer rationalized their action by repeating that they only ever did it once on the outro. Having sought confession, they were ready to move on as the french horn synths in the outro brought the gentle song to its closure.

I found it interesting that these songs from the early 90s were unfinished, which leads me to suspect that all of the vocals here were recent for a consistent tone. The band had their work cut out to find a way to get the [obsolete] tapes from almost 30 years ago read successfully. I suspect that had this been finished by 1993, the result would have been closer to a seamless continuation of the vibe the band was exploring on “Song.” By linking up with original producer Callum Malcolm [who accompanied Whitehead and Campbell] and recording in Castlesound Studio, that meant that the sonic footprint of the album adhered close to the imperial Blue Nile sound.

Of course, feel is one thing. It’s Immaterial approached the emotional content of their music in a very different way to The Blue Nile. The band proffered a more dryly dispassionate, conversational tone to their music that was intimate without the more grandiose tone that Paul Buchanan aimed for. But the overriding factor that I feel had the biggest effect on this album, was the fact that it was re-worked and finished contemporaneously. This allowed the band to reflect their current headspace, and it made for an album that was ultimately a half-step away from the vibe on “Song.”

“House For Sale” was a slightly poppier, less abstract album, where the gentle, mid tempo songs and performances could nestle close to the sort of vibe that China Crisis also explored. In that context, especially with Gary Daly inviting Mr. Campbell to perform on his recent solo album, and with the appearance here of CC’s engineer Mark Pythian,  any similarities to that other Liverpudlian band were heightened here,  but ultimately, the emotional tone here was more shadowy and nuanced. Lacking the winsome quality that Mr. Daly usually brought to the music of China Crisis.

The new sessions recorded contemporaneously in Liverpool at Elevator Studios and engineered by Tom Roach were ultimately produced by the band. Bringing a 90s state of mind into the present for a mixed approach. I wonder if the lyrics were even written 30 years ago. Even if they were, I can imagine the accumulated weight of half a lifetime lived since then would inevitably lead to changes. Possibly drastic ones.

If you’ve ever been captured by the gentle, introverted pull of this band then I strongly recommend bringing any ardor for their unique musical presence up to date with a purchase of their third album, which has taken a long, and circuitous path to reach our grateful, 2020 ears. I can hope that there might be another album in the offering in less than half a lifetime from this compelling duo.

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About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | remastering vinyl • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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