[18 September 2006]
Bluebottle Kiss has gained something of a reputation for being perennially around, but not quite reaching what seemed like its full potential. The band careened between ferocious, guitar-fueled atonality and tender, dreamlike ballads, hitting a wide range of genres and musical cues between its 1996 debut, Higher Up the Firetrails, and its fifth studio album, 2003’s Come Across. Through it all, there were a few haunting tunes, like “Everything Begins and Ends at Exactly the Right Time” and “Gangsterland”, but no continued sense of evolution.
But this new double album has a story. Bluebottle Kiss has historically skipped across genres so nimbly—from basic indie rock to jazz, punk, folk and country—that albums can sound almost like compilations of different bands. Doubt Seeds is Jamie Hutchings’ response, an attempt to explain his influences by taking an idea from a composition by John Coltrane, say, or Tom Waits, and building it into a new, entirely Bluebottle Kiss composition.
As an example: “Miranda”, a short track that comes near the end of the second disc, is a shimmering tremolo chant, with high, wordless female choir and jumbled brass. Though it sounds completely different, the whole thing’s a tribute to the modal improvisation at the base of Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue.
Elsewhere, the transformation is more effective in theory than in practice. The riff from the album opener is taken from the Stooges’ song “TV Eye”; the track is conceived as an exploration of the influence that band has had on Bluebottle Kiss’ music, evoking a rock / jazz clash chaos in a new context. The song itself is fine, but without this explanation you wouldn’t listen to it twice. So here’s the problem: Academic investigation of influence is admirable, sure, but if the result fails to be compelling as a song, then the experiment’s failed.
This kind of treatment is given, throughout the album, to songs of Sonic Youth, Joy Division, Midnight Oil ... the long list goes on. What emerges from these investigations is not so much discernable variations on a theme as subtly shifting aesthetics—so that “White Rider” sounds like electric Dylan over David Bowie guitar stomps, and “The Women Are an Army” takes country’s sliding guitars as a background to a familiar Casanova tale. Across it all, Jamie Hutchings’ voice is a unifying factor; it slurs and sighs, drunken and sullen, and easily and accurately portrays both loss and depression.
So, it’s the kind of album that requires explanation. The kind of album where songs have thought-out “themes” that the musician can readily identify and discuss; that sometimes require concentrated attention to unravel. You won’t hear many soaring, pretty melodies here; sometimes, songs do little to rise above reverential bombast. But occasionally, Hutchings hits on a melody or an idea that resonates, and (as on previous BBK efforts) there are some gorgeous moments. Mostly, these are Bluebottle Kiss’ forays into more melodic pop territory. “Scrub the Mist”, with a rocking piano ostinato, and Strokes-like vocal distortion, is a calm highlight of the first disc; the casually-tossed out line “Time’s a precious currency” sticks fast. And “Harold Holt”, with its reference to Midnight Oil’s “Wedding Cake Island”, uses an Australian legend (the disappearance of the 17th Australian Prime Minister in the surf off Portsea, Victoria in 1967) as a powerful metaphor for loss.
But in the end, Doubt Seeds shows Bluebottle Kiss to be a band not so much as a unique combination of influences, but as a band that exists in different genres at the same time. There’s an integrity and intensity to Hutchings’ vision of his music that can be compelling, but can also be a little alienating for listeners. If you’re ready to put in the effort to understand and really engage with this music, its depth can be rewarding indeed.