A few months ago I covered an EP by London-based quartet Guillemots that I giddily proclaimed as the pop record of the year. It sounded bold and ambitious, as if it was permanently suck in that magic moment when the Wizard of Oz bursts from black and white into colour. And while that might be lacking a bit of critical distance, I’m standing by it, ‘cos months later, the From the Cliffs EP still sounds utterly fantastic to me. It was a glittery, sweeping release that marked Guillemots out as a band onto something very special indeed. Even in the moments when the overreaching ambition didn’t quite take off into the air, it was thrilling to listen to a band aspiring to make such a weird and beautiful pop racket. What a relief it is then, that the album proper, fulfils all the promise of the EP’s and blows up the invention and melody into something that frequently shoots out into space, whilst still sounding as intimate as a lovelorn whisper in the ear. From the opening orchestral swells of “Little Bear” to the samba carnival storm that closes the stunning “Sao Paulo”, Through the Windowpane, in all its jazzy pop majesty, is a truly magnificent record quite unlike anything you’ll hear this year.
If you were to glance at the music press or just switch on MTV2 you’d think that Britain was on fire with fresh faced new rock and rollers exploding from every town and city all over the country. The Arctic Monkeys are at number one having sold a bazillion records, the Automatic are on morning television, hell, even my Gran has got herself a Kooks tattoo… And while there are kicks to be had from these bands’ youthful stabs at rock and roll, it can’t cover up that so much of the sounds being feted at every twist and turn leave you, well, cold. After a while, Libertines aping kids with guitars, running amok over grotty stages, start to look like the safest, most ordinary thing in the world. Which is why Guillemots stand out a mile. Drawn from the widest of sonic pallets, Through the Windowpane is the most striving, creative, soulful rock/pop/jazz/prog/whatever album this listener has heard since, er, ages ago.
It would be easy for any band to end up getting lost in the haze of ideas and sounds that colour this record, but Guillemots rarely do. There is a fearless musicality here, as all manner of keyboards, strings and brass sounds get swirled together, and crescendos of noise and clutter are somehow pulled round into moments of pure pop songwriting. Yep, Through the Windowpane is a pop record on the scale that people used to make. The sounds being made here only seem so beguiling because, unlike in 1967 when The Beatles were off creating whole new universes, the pop music you hear on the radio today sounds tired and worn out from 40 years worth of rehashing and saturation. Take the recent semi-hit in England, “Made-Up Love Song #43” — which, even with its childishly nonsensical lyrics and candy-floss sweet melody, is still slightly off-kilter and totally compelling. Singer Fyfe Dangerfield croons the lines, “You got me off the sofa / Just sprang out of the air / The best things come from nowhere / I can’t believe you care!”, as the song bursts into an exultant celebration of new love, before eventually fading out against a waterfall of whispered voices and bubbling keyboards. The only other song here to survive from the EP is “Trains to Brazil”, which remains the most joyous, dizzily careering three minutes of horn-drenched melancholy you’re going to hear anywhere in 2006. It might evoke the tradgedy and folly of the recent London bombings, but the sheer defiant excitement of the closing lines, “Can’t you live and be thankful you’re here? / See it could be you tomorrow, next year”, is a thrilling, cinematic pean to life.
Elsewhere, “If the World Ends” is a gorgeous piece of heart-wrenching soul music, with Dangerfield’s delicately pained voice floating just over the organs and keyboards that carry the song towards something genuinely unique and touching. Indeed, Dangerfield has a voice that could induce mass swooning at a hundred paces, and on “Blue Would Still Be Blue” he sings solo but for a clinking toy piano, and it’s at once beautifully restrained and overflowing with melodramatic emotion. And so it continues — “Annie, Let’s Not Wait” sounds like a nursery rhyme set to a cheap Casio beat before turning into soaring pop sing-a-long and ending as a rattling samba kickabout, and though recent single “We’re Here” is a song just slight enough to get blown away by the skyward production, it still takes you on one hell of a ride.
Through the Windowpane, then, is a record of dazzling invention and scope. Sure, it sounds huge and warm and at times preposterously overblown, but to criticise the band for this would surely miss the point. Guillemots have created a record perfectly out of synch with its times, one that is drawn in full colour from the wildest of imaginations. Put simply, Through the Windowpane is one of the most memorable and astounding debut albums of recent memory.