Collecting together 18 non-album tracks from the English cult-band Trembling Blue Stars, A Certain Evening Light is, like most rarities discs, mostly intended for people that are already fans of the band. Compilations, by their nature, are generally disjointed affairs. This one pulls together six years worth of the band's 7"s, a three song single, and a song given away at the label's Christmas party. The tracks don't run in chronological order, which would have made things a bit more interesting by letting you better hear how the band's sound developed, or in some cases, failed to. I can't see that it will be all that useful to people who have already written the band off or who have yet to hear their particular brand of melancholy. If you're not familiar with their music, you're probably better off starting with one of the band's four full-lengths, two of which, 2000's Broken by Whispers and 2002's Alive to Every Smile were released in America by SubPop. Broken by Whispers in particular felt more accessible than the song's collected here, though that disc was likewise hampered by most of the same problems that have attached themselves to the band in general.
Lead Star Bob Wratten, former front man from the even more cultish Field Mice and Northern Picture Library, makes music that tends to be all together too precious, too one-sided; everywhere you look it feels like you're being sold on heartbreak, hurt and regret. There has to be more to write about and the overall lack of diversity ends up making things feel incomplete, like pieces of the story are left out. Your emotions won't get stirred up unless you let them; the disc is never really all that effective at catching you off-guard. I hate to say it, but more than anything it's just kind of boring. I don't think that I've ever skipped the rest of so many tracks on a CD after a minute or so of a song had played but that's all that you really need to hear to get the picture. Wratten is certainly likable and sincere, or maybe that's self-centered, and it's easy to start feeling a little protective of him. But it ends up being in more of a tough love kind of way. Early on, you're willing to maybe put your arm around him and give him a little hug to try and make him feel better. Maybe take him out for a drink. After a few more minutes, though, you've already started to get tired of his complaining.
The breathy singing sounds too frail, the blips, bleeps, and electronic beats too joyless; ultimately the sound just feels too thin. The emotions, too, can come across as cold and studied as the music sounds, or perhaps just as isolated. "Doo-Wop Music", a lonely waltz which should be the album's highlight is so calculated, down to the scratchy vinyl pops, that it's like the band doesn't want to give you the opportunity to feel anything but wistful. Their agenda feels so narrow that you can't really ever get outside of it. It's like the metallic drum machine drone and singularity of emotion sucks out all of the fun and romance that should be exaggerated with memory.
On "Though I Still Want to Fall into Your Arms" it's tough to tell if Wratten is trying to be funny or if he's just being pathetic. "Though I still want to fall into your arms I won't let that come between us / Though I still see you as home that won't make me run from us / And if I can't show you how I've grown the way I want to / I can do it by being friends with you." Look, a piece of advice. When I was twenty-two I subscribed to that exact same line of reasoning and believe me, it just didn't work.
The songs can be catchy at moments, they certainly don't qualify as bore-core, and on "It's Easier to Smile" the band comes across like Luna ("Keeping your heart broken is too much like hard work"), or maybe New Order, covering Naked Eyes. When Wratten sings, "Hearts will mend if you only let them / Hearts they mend, you just have to let them / Just got to leave them alone/ It was all a long time ago", it's relieving to think that he might be finally getting a little perspective on things. He sounds like a different person, almost bopping along to the (unintentionally) cheesy '80s synths. Even though it amounts to basically just relationship hokum, the line sort of rings true when Wratten delivers it. It's at least better than, "There's only one way to the clear light of day / Straight through the darkness" ("While Your Heart is Still Beating").
After a full hour of A Certain Evening Light it all gets to feeling like new age music for grown-up feel-bad indie rockers. Still, the collection is obviously worthwhile for the band's dedicated fans but it doesn't figure to shed any new light on the band's catalog. Personally, I was left screaming, "For God's sake, tell her you love her, settle down, and get on with writing some different kinds of songs. And look, if she doesn't love you, it's all going to be okay. I promise. Now pick yourself up off the floor and let's get the hell out of here."