The Boris Flats are back and dishing up a healthy serving of musical variety (it really is the spice of life) that will mesmerize, confound and at times, amaze. They — the Boris Flats basically being the overtly talented multi-instrumentalist songwriter/performers Van Norris-Jones and Geoff Webb — manage the difficult feat of being both derivative and eclectically original, often within even the short space of a single song.
The Sunshine Imperative is as essential as the CD’s demanding title implies, for sheer breadth of accomplishment alone. The music here spans an incredible range, and listing all possible references could take up an entire afternoon. I will name a few that seem more obvious to my ears, but I’m sure one could expand that list exponentially. These musical chameleons have a penchant for taking disparate elements, mixing them into something new and infectious and pop (of various shades and tones), then topping it off with a song title that’s never predictable and sometimes downright mysterious.
The good thing is that, even if you hate a certain track, you may love the next one. And vice versa. There’s that kind of range, the size of which no major record label would likely allow on one CD. So go for the gusto before some major discovers these Hampshire lads and pigeonholes them stylistically. Right now, it’s all here for the adventurous listener to explore — humor and melancholy, sunshine and darkness, an expansive mélange.
The CD opens with “Gumball”, a four-and-a-half minute piece of sweet celebration of life and innocence. Our protagonist chooses a “comic book in sunshine” kind of alternative reality, scaling walls and climbing trees: “It’s you and me / You put me in a world of sun and harmony / I’m refusing to get real because we all know how that feels / And I’m never going back / I’m laughing out of context at everything they say”. The music is a sunny as the message. There is lightness and harmony here, aptly fading into the voices of children playing.
The title track “The Sunshine Imperative (Down Is Up, Up Is Down and Down Is All Around)” veers heavily into the realm of the psychedelic, rife with sitars and reverb and reverse guitars and tabla-like rhythms. The lyrics espouse a sort of “flower-child” philosophy, summers sleeping late and staring deeply and wishing and “waiting for a better place than now”. This fades into a brief instrumental entitled “Himbo in Limbo”.
“Ejector Seat” returns us into the world of sunny pop, perhaps even going back a few decades or more. This pleasant track grows better with repeated listens, chock full of subtle hooks and harmonies and the lyrics only make it more of a keeper. This is the tale of a man held hostage in a relationship, strapped in tight by the other’s decrees, and of his wonderful escape via ejector seat: “Though I love you I can live without you / Ejector seat please work for me / Push me through the roof and smiling / Up into a brand new world”. Musically, it’s a jaunty bouncy guitar base upon which you get early 1960s harmonies, à la the Association, deft bass lines, organ, handclaps, a mid-song break in which it goes back to acoustic guitar that build alongside the sound of a jet, then folds into a Crosby, Stills, Nash harmony-filled coda that recalls “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”.
“Smug” opens with retro-harmonic background sounds as well, but comes across as a musical cross-pollination between They Might Be Giants (John Linnell) and Hawksley Workman. This is extreme fun right up to the final attempt at a trumpet’s blow, a censure of those types of people that plan out their lives (or have them planned for them): You’re young, clean and rich / Don’t be old, poor and dirty / While the tax can be a bitch / You can retire when you reach thirty / And showbiz buddies gather round and pay tribute to all that you’ve achieved”.
It’s a dip into Elton John territory with the song “Aquamarine”, a poetic ballad of a possibly ended relationship, and how love makes all simple things complex.
This is fairly traditional stuff placed beside “One Thousand Nimmos (From the Social Contract to the Sky, the Horizon and the Mountains”, which is like an instrumental soundtrack with narration (by Sarah Radford). Musically, it starts with drums that could be from an old “George of the Jungle” soundtrack, followed by Bela Fleck-like banjo, and a nature poem narrative that could fit comfortably in some Moody Blues CD. The piece is eclectic, but entrancing.
This is in marked contrast to the mellow folk-like sensibility of “St. Ursula Grove”, which features some nice pedal steel work from guest Nick Evans.
The likely single here is the uber-catchy “Geezerworld”, venturing a slight bit into the world of dance/electronica with its cool percussive synth organ bass accents and samples. With verses that sound something like an old Madness song, this complex tune stays with you longer than unexpected houseguests, and is far better company. Lyrically, it provides an apt dissection of the modern man: “No lies, no prize all pride and none the wiser / No ties, won’t take the rise and still none the wiser / He swears to you that he has changed (right from the start) / But you’ve heard it all before”. An extended version of “Geezerworld” closes the CD.
The Boris Flats go late-era Beatle-ish on “Blisspig”, with a “Come and Get It” piano intro that quickly morphs into the full Lennon-esque treatment on verse and chorus. This is a wonderful musical love letter from Wolverine to Blisspig (talk about your pet names): “I’ll never love another so mysterious and beautiful as you”.
The instrumental “Phat Atom” is more trance/electronica/sampling that sounds like a cross between soundtracks of movie and video game. It mixes beats, spaghetti western elements à la Ennio Morricone, John Barry and Angelo Badalamenti, psychedelic bits à la Olivia Tremor Control and others from the Elephant Six collective, and again, even some traces of early They Might Be Giants.
The other pure instrumental, “It Doesn’t Have to End This Way (excerpt)”, is more of a strict soundtrack piece, bells and synth strings giving it a definite holiday feel, even in its relative brevity.
“I Love U More” delves into the 1980s synth sounds (think Spandau Ballet, Gary Numan, even Human League) and mixes that with a touch of Burt Bacharach in the arranging. This love song trades on the trance-like synthesizer effects.
“The Jack and Danii Show” is a tale of risqué openness in the wild pierced downtown scene of this pair’s world “where you can do anything and conversely, anything can be done to you”. Needless to say, things are not all they seem.
Just when you think The Boris Flats have exhausted their stylistic bag of tricks, they show you another. “Holiday Cheese” is a flat-out guitar-driven rocker in the style of vintage new-wave era Squeeze (and many others).
When all is said and done, you’ll find traces of XTC, Wondermints, Guided by Voices, Flaming Lips, Captain Beefheart and many more. As I mentioned earlier, you could compile quite a list. The thing is, the end product is good, a truly breathtaking mix of so much from what is essentially a two-man musical circus. This is admirable and intelligent adult pop that achieves its own identity amid all the obvious influences, where similar efforts by others usually fall short.
The songs of The Sunshine Imperative are memorable, their variety breath taking. Since there’s a lot to handle here, one might do best to listen in segments — say, divide the offerings in half to give yourself more chance to focus on individual tracks. The wide array of styles and instruments almost insures you won’t love all of it, but conversely, you’ll probably find much you will adore.
Ultimately, if you invest the time to unleash the eclectic wonders of The Sunshine Imperative, you’ll be well rewarded. This unusually wide-ranging collection definitely is a big aural wow.