"In the dark, distant and shimmering, is the place for us that no one knows."
-- from "What We've Won"
There's no better way to describe Blue States' exquisite second release, Man Mountain, than as occupying that distant place, shimmering and secret, that Tahita Bulmer sings of in "What We've Won". With stars in their eyes and their feet firmly on the ground, Bulmer and Andy Dragazis, the multi-instrumentalist, producer, arranger, and general one-man showstopper behind Blue Stares, have created an album both spacey and earthy, psychedelic and precise, transcendent and self-aware. Man Mountain is an explosion of cinematic orchestration and lush 1960s guitars, cerebrally chill and simply extraordinary.
Blue States are about due to conquer the United States after garnering huge success and critical acclaim in their native UK. Their debut album, Nothing Changes Under the Sun, a mainly instrumental epic which came out in 2001, showcased Dragazis' background in film studies and music with its soundtrack feel; Man Mountain follows the same path with the addition of Bulmer's pristine and aching Tracey Thorne- esque vocals.
Orchestral "chill-out" acts are a dime a dozen, though, and the ability to provide tranquil, pretty background music does not on its own make for an exceptional album. Man Mountain, at first listen, may appear to be one of these sweet but easily tossed-aside, early Air-like attempts at cool, glassy beauty: fawning melodies and touches of French lounge pop that in the end add up to a lovely emptiness, music that rushes headlong into space without pausing to fill it. But Man Mountain is ephemeral with a sense of direction. It is, in a sense, a calculating album -- like the most effective, artistic Hollywood films, it takes you to mapped-out emotional highs and lows with the precision of a master director. In fact, that might be the label Dragazis should go by: Director, Blue States. Certainly there are few bands as amazingly imagistic as Blue States -- and even in cinema, few directors as sharply creative as Dragazis. His ability to craft masterly, deep soundscapes with astounding deftness lifts Blue States far above its inferiors.
This attention to emotional effect is especially evident in "Colouration", a glorious spiral of melancholy strings and gentle psychedelica that swings from the heights of intoxication to the depths of betrayal -- all without vocals, all within four minutes. "Only Today", one of several songs featuring Bulmer's heartrending vocals, moves from an exuberant Jacques Brel-like opening of trombone and trumpet into longing cello and violins, effortlessly capturing a loss of innocence and childhood. "If you turn aside," Bulmer sings, "the image will reappear." And so the song shifts from past to present as the combination of Bulmer's voice and Dragazis' instrumentation create a kaleidoscope of twisting memories with one overall consistency: the passage of time. "Studio 20" also showcases Dragazis' unique ability to make grounded but airborne songs as funky keys and drums give way to soaring horns.
But the most standout track on this exceptional album is "Season Song". Beginning with jangly guitars feeling out a fuzzy riff, "Season Song" expands and explodes to make way for what is possibly the most original, affecting use of a boys' choir in a pop song since the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want". Bulmer's voice seems to guide the boys' as the ritualistic melodies enrapture and fascinate. Like some springtime Druid rite, "Season Song" is both earthly and transcendent, feeling almost mystical in its crisp purity. Most importantly, Dragazis keeps his song grounded with key use of bass and congas. It's a beautiful, wide-eyed song that never becomes flowery, loose, or trite. It demands to be heard not behind martini bar white noise, but with the listener's full attention and appreciation . . . perhaps, even, in a darkened movie theater.
Overall, Man Mountain is a soundtrack for the greatest drugged-out hallucination ever, or for some recreated dream, just beyond reach but with definite borders. A mixture of dizzying heavenly grandeur and acute self-awareness, the gorgeously cinematic Man Mountain already deserves recognition as one of the best albums of 2002.