[8 March 2010]
This is the most beautiful album I’m probably going to hear this year. I’m not just saying that because I’m from New Zealand and am partial to my compatriots. To be sure, the sophomore effort of Lawrence Arabia (aka James Milne) isn’t the most original, enveloped as it is in rainbow-bright ‘60s harmonies and baroque melodrama. But if you take its exquisite rendering of references to said era, add a dose of honest-to-goodness melancholy and dry nods to New Zealand (most obviously, Auckland in “Auckland CBD” and the Holden Commodore in “The Crew of the Commodore”), really, you would be one churlish party-pooper to dismiss Chant Master as just another exercise in pastiche.
Each of its ten songs is a pithy pop bite that wafts like your favourite perfume/cologne, sized for an assorted gift-box. Only once you’ve taken to one, you want to acquire the whole set. However, unlike that woozy and delicate cult band currently on everyone’s lips, Beach House, Chant Master won’t easily be swept away. That would be a gross tragedy if it were, for the album was recorded in at least seven places spanning three countries (Sweden, Britain and New Zealand), with Milne employing more collaborators than he would care to if this was still 2006 and he was working on his first solo album (which, incidentally, didn’t make much of a splash outside of New Zealand). In an interview with Dan Watt of Beat, Milne said that it took a lot of restraint on his part to control only “70%” of the album’s production, but his “letting go” certainly proved fruitful, as his spindly, sometimes excessively twee songwriting of past albums were fleshed out with the texture they needed.
It’s hard not to get hooked from the moment Milne puts his Lennon guise on while undressing his romantic vulnerabilities on “Look Like a Fool”. The word “love” seeps in as the spectral harmony from the Beatles’ “Because” and merges with doses of Fleetwood Mac in the guitar part, and a charming string and piano instrumental bridge, to form a tapestry that’s simultaneously as technicolour-sublime as the Zombies circa Odyssey and Oracle yet close enough to home thanks to Milne’s all-too-human vocal delivery. The only gripe I have is toward the end when the strings go haywire. Is this not a contrived way to simulate the tape loop effects so beloved by the Beatles? This notwithstanding, “Look Like a Fool” is one testament of Milne’s songwriting credentials in the great baroque pop tradition; it never takes the most obvious turns of melody and yet it never sounds unduly challenging.
The song forms a continuum with the next two: the first being the short-and-sweet “The Desirables”, which is one part Simon and Garfunkel and two parts Fab Four and ought to be performed in an echoing chamber for maximum mind-blowing effect. The other is hit-in-the-wings “Apple Pie Bed”, the first item on Chant Darling with a spring in its step thanks to its Motown bassline, jangling guitar hook and singalong chorus.
If there are any eyebrow-raising moments on the album, they’re to be found on “Auckland CBD” and the single “The Beautiful Young Crew”. The former takes up the raised consciousness of the ‘60s for sounds that aren’t Anglo-American in origin with something that could have dropped off Vampire Weekend’s wagon. It is almost comical that Milne’s ukulele-induced exoticism should rear itself in “Auckland CBD”, a pedestrian tale of Saturday night lust. Such dry wit, seen also on the Zombies-esque album closer “Dream Teacher”, gives Lawrence Arabia its deserved indie darling status and bears a faint resemblance to something Flight of the Conchords would do. As if this juxtaposition wasn’t enough to pique your appetite, at the song’s halfway mark, the plunky ukulele, Afro-polyrhythms, trumpet chirps and Milne’s lo-fi vocals segue into a woolgathering moment like someone has just seen the light. Only instead of choral chants of “Hallalujah” providing the accompaniment, we have a string arrangement that could have been a section out of the B-side of the theme from Soul Train. It’s one of those delightfully curious moments that come and go with nary a ripple.
“The Beautiful Young Crew”, memorable as it is with its seventies’ documentary-style video of Milne acting as a prime ministerial candidate, bears another noteworthy juxtaposition. A “hillbilly” accompaniment rollicks along as Milne plays arch voyeur and deadpans: “And they love each other / And they hate each other / They’re afraid of each other / Because they want to screw each other”. Apparently, according to Watt’s interview, this was Milne getting fed up with watching his neighbours in achingly hip London area Shoreditch, where he was lucky enough to stay during the recording of Chant Darling. The folksiness of the song is eventually propelled by a massive hand-clapping singalong, and like “Auckland CBD”, there is a random yet seamlessly-woven instrumental hook, this time featuring a trumpet. As you can guess, the song’s hard to pin down, but its charismatically quaint manner makes it a worthy rather than frustrating listen.
Even though this album is clearly a winner with this listener, there is one wrinkle that could do with some ironing out. “The Crew of the Commodore” is needlessly shoe-gazey soporific, making its melodic adventures a drag on the ear rather than a joy. In fact, this is the kind of thing one would expect of Beach House.
The brilliance of Chant Darling is that while it peddles a brand of indie pop that comes off chewed over and spat out a million times over, there is nothing tiring about it. That’s because it’s neither precious nor gimmicky nor remotely self-conscious. And it’s just so beautiful!