Various Artists: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Twisted Nerve But Were Afraid to Ask
Even though he won the UK's prestigious Mercury Music Prize, Damon Gough, a.k.a Badly Drawn Boy, isn't much for hubris. In fact, he seems to embody anything but -- from his ruffled, aww-shucks appearance, to his darling, understated songs, to his website chock full of silly inside jokes. There's an insular smallness to everything he touches, a penchant for the humble, the contemplative, and even the insecure.
Badly Drawn Boy may be intent on staying nestled within his own little world, but he's found a way to people it with denizens who share his visions. Chief among his tactics is running Twisted Nerve Records with friend, founder and sometimes collaborator Andy Votel; the Manchester, England natives tag-team on A&R and have put together a roster of musicians who sound like extensions of each of their sonic egos. (Check out Votel's 2001 Styles of the Unexpected EP for a deeper sense of his electromagnetic fantasia.) And the label's most recent output, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Twisted Nerve But Were Afraid to Ask, functions, in essence, as their manifesto -- a 19-track trail through the eerie, airy, modular and minimalist musings so signature to the Gough/Votel way.
The disc includes rarities, LP versions, and previously unreleased material from all of Twisted Nerve's artists, including the critical honorable mention-ed Alfie, one of the few, beyond Badly Drawn Boy, to make ripples on the stateside of the Atlantic. But just because you may not have heard of some of the artists doesn't mean their sounds won't feel familiar. (Though, in truth, Twisted Nerve is a family affair -- some of these groups have worked so closely together that calling them separate bands is somewhat a superficial distinction.) This disc unfolds like a book of fables, each with a vernacular folklore that harkens back to proverbial aural tales. Melodically, the disc is simple and forthcoming; attitudinally, it is pensive and focused; stylistically, it is manifold but also appropriately plain.
Chapter one, Badly Drawn Boy's "Shake the Rollercoaster" from difficult-to-find EP1, appropriately sets the tone for the remainder of the album. (A slight digression: 1997 EP1, Twisted Nerve's first release, is so rare that it often sells for £150 on online auctions, and placebo copies of the thing are rampant.) A dream sequence of white noise rolls over the entire number, making it sound distant, ancient. (In reality, the noise probably has something to do with the recording quality of the original release, which was exclusively on vinyl, but again, I digress.) In and of itself, the number is barren -- just an acoustic guitar and Gough's vocals comprise its instrumentation -- but the noise makes it sound full, like a full audience is hushing each other constantly with adamant shhhs.
Following the track are a pair of instrumentals by Sirconical and DOT, which are both strange and magical, and reflect one another's sentiments like a wading pool reflects the sun. While Sirconical's number, entitled "Moondance", plays with building electric sounds that intensify with a happy-go-lucky energy, DOT's "Safe in the Knowledge" is slow, morose, and bisected, its intricate and passionate parts contained and balanced against a soft, basic, and cadence-like guitar line. Next in sequence are Mum & Dad with the mish-mosh "Castle Heights", which sounds ghoulish, soulful, and fantastical all at once. Clair Pearson's vocals ring with an almost R&B timbre (think Everything But the Girl or a Tricky-esque femme-fatale), while the keyboards which back belch a swampy mush, keyed up with modulated computer voices. While her airy croon at times seems at time wholly disconnected and separate from the peculiar sonic chaos that backs her, the independence is refreshing and thrilling.
The album banks on its ability to effectively play, to simply be, and to delight in small wonders. Other highlights: "Montevideo", a warm and hazy track from Alfie's 2001 If You Happy with You Need Do Nothing; Misty Dixon's pure and pretty "Headlights (And Where We Drive)"; and the angular, tingling instrumental "All My Teeth/ North and South", by Supreme Vagabond Craftsmen. But this is really an album where liking one track probably assures an appreciation, on some level, for them all.
Perhaps there is something devilishly egomaniacal about fashioning an entire universe where you and like-minded friends feel comfortable existing. But, to be fair, what Votel and Gough have done with the Twisted Nerve Posse is far superior and meaningful than narcissistic navel-gazing. They've forged a truly unique cosmos that fills a necessary void, and, at that, it is a pleasant one to behold. Moreover, they've crystallized a history, articulated a musical movement (however tiny), and drummed up an army of productive patriots. And for that, I say, thank goodness.