|She's got the whole world in her hands.|
FERTILITY IN PIECES by Adrienne Darvell
"The key word for 2011 is 'backlog'", asserts Andy Brain, Keshco's longtime singer-songwriter-producer, currently sat cross-legged on his carpet packing away his Christmas decorations. "We've always had more projects than we knew what to do with, so this year we deliberately prepped up the Middle Room CD [for side-project Bleak House] and finished up the Johnny Cocktail movie, before turning back to music in time for another Christmas release."
Ah, the Christmas release, now a firmly established part of Keshco's year. This time, we have a cover image of a cupcake being offered to the camera. Stuck into its psychedelic icing (or is it an Earth-like map?) are six plastic figures of world leaders, factory-white, still attached to their moulding bar as if representing a family tree, or perhaps hanging from gallows. The EP is cheerily entitled "Futile Peace Offering". Is the title significant? "Ho yes. But the thing that's missing, which was part of the original plan, was a song about the United Nations. Very prog stylings, with overlapping vocal lines and extended twiddly bits! I don't know when that will surface now, as it was about eight minutes long and this seemed the best place for it."
Nevertheless, listening to the EP now, the title seems to hold water, with a succession of meditations on impermanence, disharmony and frustration; even the ostensibly jaunty opener, "Top Deck", is shot through with misanthropy - its narrator desires an empty upper deck on the bus to be away from people and home, and entertains the prospect of disembarking at a random point (implicitly, to start again somewhere else), then is lulled into a dreamworld by the stroboscopic effects of "sunlight split through trees and railings", before the trip is eventually spoilt by his personal stereo breaking down, cueing a 2-minute outro of increasing intensity. The drums are quite wild on this one, aren't they? "Not half!" Andy drops some baubles into a box and starts disassembling a Nativity.
Keshco have always had a nice line in lovesongs, despite protestations that "it's not really what we do, is it?". Case in point: track 2, "Technicolor Universe", though you can detect a subtext. The singer, Robert in ardent mode, maintains a calm front against exterior storms - "work can go to the wall" as long as his beloved is there through the night - but the effect is not altogether reassuring, despite some desperately pretty chimes and synth lines. The track is a plea, delivered without surety; it's not made explicit whether the lady will stay, and the track ends suspended mid-break without resolution.
Andy has made Beware! a chai which is still too hot to drink, and there's nothing to dunk. In its place, he suggests a bowl of cereal. On the EP, it's back to work, of a sort - self-promotion, which every aspiring artiste will be only too familiar with, but Keshco have particular reservations. "Shelved" is a cut of lo-fi synthpop with the backing and vocals originally recorded by Luke on 4-track, "then copied to our super-dooper 8-track, then into Buzz for the full Depeche treatment". The accompanying electronic squeals hark back to Keshco of old, with the hiss and scuffs part of the overall aesthetic. The arduous nature of the task is emphasized by the metronomic beat and suppressed-anger vocals. Two minutes in, our focus shifts to what appears to be field recordings of a singer promoting his wares in some trendy music shop. He's turned down: "Ahh - we don't take CD-Rs." "No no, it's a CD, in a case. More ooh than ahh." But of course, it's Robert and Andy in character. "That is actually pretty accurate, for London anyway."
Beware! starts to wonder if the title has further resonances. Has all been well in the camp this year? "Well, we all get frustrated - either because we get out-of-practice and then it takes some time to hit the spot, or we get particularly bored by the promo side of things, as you've heard! - or when we've done gigs cos it always goes balls-up somehow."
Hmm. Andy, you've not done synthpop for a while, is this track a first step back to the genre? The ginger boffin grimaces. "Well... we've always tried to mix folk and electronic elements, it just seemed to make sense for 'Shelved'. I think we will be trying some pure electronic things in future EPs, ask me again next year!"
Next up, an acoustic ditty with a touch of Suzanne Vega about it ("Really?" Andy replies, as if it's only just occurred to him), "Architecture Weekly" casts an acerbic eye around the London that two of the band still call home. "Old Street was the specific influence, though the lyric built up over various bus journeys. You know - at any given point, half the city seems to be in flux, and Transport for London has this booklet explaining how they are overhauling every Tube line - the timeline extends until about 2030. At which point they'll start over again". Here, the band's by-now-signature reverb is used with a chaotic lapsteel to recreate the screeching and banging that is part of the modern skyline. The track ends with a nod to the renewed interest in anti-capitalist protest, exhorting all to "reclaim the city" - "Hey kids, drink up we're leaving, to replant the garden, dig a fishpond as well".
What's the other sane response to all this concrete? Well we all want to get away. "Departure Lounge" is one of the most library music-styled pieces we've seen from Keshco, which runs a fine line between parody and Pages From Ceefax. Tidal waves of cymbals against a pair of slipsliding lead guitars, called to a halt by the airport chimes of the boarding call. A jetliner screams across the stereo. A massively upbeat jam kicks in, all wicky-wicky percussion and insane twanging, the perfect music for dancing ninnies.
It's straight back down to earth, as metallic distorted Casiotone percussion heralds "Long Road To Castle Acre", a post-break-up lament backed by transistor organ and restrained tremolo guitar and bass. "That one had a... nutty genesis. Robert sang the original lead vocal with the beats and organ, then played that mixdown in Goldwave through the air and recorded a mono track of live drums over the top. We then worked from that mono track when adding the other instruments. It adds a kind of telephone quality to his voice."
Perhaps the most noticeable addition to the sonic palette this time is the lapsteel ("we're still honeymooning with it", Andy grins); and indeed track 7, "Like Home", is a complete band of the things, seemingly put through a long wave radio. Snatches of other tracks jostle with the meanderings of the pure electronic tone of the airwaves, before taking over the following minute completely.
The EP's last track, "Wiped", is pretty sombre. "It's specifically a tribute to Broadcast singer Trish Keenan, who died in January 2011. We had some contact years ago, and I'd always hoped our paths would cross again, so took it pretty badly. At the time, I was reading a book about the attempts to recover lost episodes of [British sci-fi serial] Doctor Who, and some of the increasingly convoluted concepts seemed to fit." The track has more than a whiff of Americana, with that lapsteel again taking on melodic duties. "We kept that one pretty simple, as the lapsteel and reverb seemed to do all the work by themselves. You've also got the reference to hauntology, which is the style they were exploring a couple of years back."
The stereo has fallen silent. So, what comes next, Andy? His eyes briefly light up. "Well, we have this 26 minute track... and another Cocktail, and another Bleak House, and a cassette, a horror EP, and a bonsai EP..." With that, Beware! downs its chai and takes its leave.