PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Music

Trembling Bells: The Constant Pageant

This is the strongest collection Trembling Bells have yet put out. The band sound assertive and in complete control of their strange aesthetic; they've also produced some mightily catchy and haunting songs.


Trembling Bells

The Constant Pageant

Label: Honest Jon's
US Release Date: 2011-04-12
UK Release Date: 2011-03-21
Website
Artist website
Amazon
iTunes

In many ways, Trembling Bells may be the most conventional project Alex Neilson has been involved with as a musician. Compared to his work with his former bands Scatter and Directing Hand, and his collaborations with musical outsiders Richard Youngs and Jandek, the formation of a four-piece group focused on recreating the golden era of British psychedelia and folk-rock would appear to be at least sailing in the direction of the mainstream. Except that the ostensibly foursquare set-up of vocals, guitars, and drums is always decentered by the addition of other instrumental textures (most notably horns played in a variety of historical styles), the use of defiantly archaic lyrics (stretching beyond conventional folk styles to incorporate Elizabethan madrigals), and a constant war between the classical and the vernacular. Despite what much postmodern theory has told us about the blurring of boundaries between high art and its others, they still rub against each other in interesting and agonistic ways.

Neilson has steered his band skillfully and productively from behind his drum kit and songwriter's pen, meshing together folk, early music, rock, jazz, and brass band music to produce three increasingly strong albums since 2009. Last year's Abandoned Love (a PopMatters Slipped Disc) got the formula just about right, with vocalist Lavinia Blackwall summoning memories of a long list of classic folk singers (Maddy Prior, Jacqui McShee, Grace Slick, Sandy Denny, Shirley Collins, Joan Baez) and all four instrumentalists bringing to mind the heady crunch of British folk-rolk pioneers Fairport Convention, Pentangle, and Steeleye Span. Add to that a fair dollop of eccentricity along the lines of Glaswegian folk psychedelicists the Incredible String Band and a bit of country music, and you had a group that sounded like no one else recording in 2010, Midlake included. Indeed, if one was to look for a contemporary comparison, one might consider the eccentric eclecticism of Josephine Foster (with whom Neilson has previously worked), a singer-songwriter doing fascinating things with folk styles and delivering her lyrics in a manner not unlike Blackwall's.

We should probably we careful about reading too much development into the material on album number three, because some of it appears to date back to the time of their debut ("Goathland", for example, was in the band's live repertoire from the start). Even so, it is still tempting to say that The Constant Pageant is the strongest collection Trembling Bells have yet put out. The band sound assertive and in complete control of their strange aesthetic; they've also produced some mightily catchy and haunting songs. In fact, they haunt from the off thanks to the sweetly coruscating "Just As The Rainbow", in which an overdriven fuzz guitar plays a slow, droning, "Eastern" riff that wouldn't be out of place on a Velvet Underground album (more Sixties references!) before reluctantly making way for the high, clear, and, yes, ethereal vocal to make its way to the fore. "All My Favourite Mistakes" establishes that the heavy, distorted guitar is going to be one of the defining sounds of the album but does so, this time, via a frenetic rocker that wears its Sixties garage rock costume with pride before embellishing with horns that seem to have Stax rather than the Stooges on their minds.

The spirit of Sandy Denny hangs over many of the tracks, but one is most reminded of solo Sandy rather than her work with Fairport or Fotheringay. "Colour of Night" and "Torn Between Loves" would not sound out of place on Denny's Like An Old-Fashioned Waltz or Rendezvous. The comparison never completely works, however. Denny's clear voice was often at its most affecting when it yielded to a warm, seductive, grainier aspect. Blackwell appears to be developing this skill (it's more in evidence here than on previous recordings) but her voice is still colder, more distant, classical rather than grainy. It's a remarkable instrument in its own right, but lacks an element of danger. To a certain extent, that's fine because danger is provided by Mike Hastings's Hendrix-inspired guitar, present throughout the album but particularly striking on "Where Do I Go From You?" and "Otley Rock Oracle".

"Otley Rock Oracle" and "Goathland" provide the second half of the album with a definite psychogeographical feel, referencing locations in Neilson's native Yorkshire. The former recounts a strange tale of a sighting of a seven-headed dog in West Yorkshire in a rocked-up narrative which skillfully utilizes storytelling and musical modes drawn from British folk tradition, albeit heavily psychedelicized by electric guitar effects. "Goathland" has a more obviously North-Eastern sonority with its mournful brass bolstering a tale of wasted days in watering holes around Robin Hood's Bay. These reminiscences are given a Dylan Thomas-like poetry--"When time held me green in infancy's bliss / I rode like the sea with chains on my wrists"-- and Blackwall does them proud as she falls back from a high vocal peak to settle in a lower, more "chained down" register.

If she is not always convincing at doing danger, Blackwall is quite impressive at doing sad. To this end, she is aided by a variety of brass instruments, which provide pathos aplenty to songs like "New Year's Eve's The Loneliest Night of the Year". This song, which closes the album, shows as well as any how good Trembling Bells are at doing what they do. The song was first released as a Christmas single at the end of last year, with vocals by Bonnie Prince Billy. Arguably the best moment was where Blackwall joined in for the harmony part on the line "It had to be winter...". This remains the most moving part on the new, BPB-less version; indeed, as Neilson enters on harmony vocals and drums, we reach the point where Trembling Bells come closest to nailing the alchemy that can be found in Sandy Denny's late ballads. It actually sounds like a song Sandy could have sung.

The sadness that attends this insight has nothing to do with concerns about mimicry or originality, only the tragedy that we will never hear Denny sing a new song. It is a gift indeed that Trembling Bells can summon such realizations, tinged though they may be with melancholy. More importantly, the mixture of styles and traditions that each member brings to this project marks the collective as different, complex, and constantly intriguing. Long live the pageant.

9

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Music

​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.

Music

The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.

Music

Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.

Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.