Stars in Battledress: Secrets and Signals

[9 November 2003]

By Jason MacNeil

The tandem Richard and James Lacombe is a bit like Ray and Dave Davies, minus the infighting and constant bickering and recognition in pop circles. The brothers began writing long ago (but only joined forces in 1999) and are the group’s only two members, using piano guitar and vocals to varying degrees. But like much British pop, there is a richness and intelligent approach to each and every track. The opening “I Spook the Language” has a medieval tone as pianos and guitars combine to create this music box sound with haunting strings added. It might seem a bit boring to some after 90 seconds, but it definitely is a great album starter. Harmonium, hurdy-gurdy, and hammered dulcimers are often used on this record, making it a bit like a miniaturized Mannheim Steamroller prior to easing itself out of the song.

“Oh Engineer” is a melodic tune with Lacombe’s vocals and lilt coming to the fore. His quirky delivery and manner of breaking down syllables is quite refreshing and recalls Morrissey in some instances. “Send an engineer”, he sings in a falsetto prior to female harmonies being added. The song also has a certain Queen-ish tone, recalling “Bohemian Rhapsody”‘s first few verses. Fans of groups like Appendix Out or Alasdair Roberts would find solace in this song and album generally. Each effort also has a classical slant, as if the brothers are still perfecting that recital they never attended. The closing rap delivery isn’t strong, though. “Polished Floors” fares much better, a grandiose tune that sounds as it will veer into pop rock territory, but never does. Instead it relies on a trick that Rialto (another unknown Brit band) does to perfection, namely creating an arrangement that sails in its own cinematic tension.

“Thumps, Kicks and Shoves” has a piano-driven melody that could be mistaken for something from XTC’s Apple Venus series. Lacombe has a simplistic approach to the piano but the song’s sway and flow are quite appealing. “Gun or a knife or a harpoon / Fight like a mad French cartoon”, the grin-inducing couplet goes early. Unfortunately, it has a brief silence that halves the song before the melody returns. “Pinocchio Falls in Love” is a beautiful tune resembling Thom Yorke without the ethereal heights. It borders on blandness midway through, with a basic guitar chord weaving in and out before a larger drone and guitar are realized.

The title track is nearly too sweet at times, with the vocals and music having a Beatles touch. “And so I watch the signals coming through the window”, Lacombe sings in a manner similar to Roland Orzabal from Tears for Fears. It rarely goes anywhere, though, resulting in the effort being very weak and, well, dull. “Remind Me of the Thames or Else” has an odd Middle Eastern meets church organ melding, sounding like music from an Indian action or spy thriller. The instrumental’s oddness is perhaps its saving grace, as there is generally no real tempo found. “Come Write Me Down” offers more of the same, with the nice harmonies of Richard and James Lacombe the biggest asset here. Dreamy Beach Boys influences can be found, with the complex nature of the tune a la Brian Wilson.

“Dulcimer Big Boy” has more of the church organ effort, with the vocals having their moments. But what is lacking on this album is, to be blunt, guitar. Had some solos been included in this album, particularly with regards to this song, it might have ended up better. But the intricate organ melody atones for it somewhat. The vocals fuse with the instrument, also, as lines speaking about the Devil touching himself are spoken. “Doing Well” is of epic length at six minutes, but ‘tis an enjoyable six minutes. “Full Colour Is His Name” closes this album, one that is very pretty in some respects, but which lacks small intangibles in others.

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