It's funny how, over time, reviewers develop their own pet labels. It is as if we are drawn to kindred souls who share our musical tastes. Brett Spaceman, for example, has n5MD and their numerous electro post rock releases. Tracers is fond of the apparently dormant Peek-a-boo and their melodic, garage-y rock, as well as Two Sheds and their cross section of Atlanta indie life. Indoor Miner ... well, he doesn't appear to have a pet label as much as some of us do. He is the exception that proves the rule, then.
I have Make Mine Music, a loose collective of mostly ambient artists, mostly from the UK. MMM and n5MD are similar in many respects. Both release albums that tend to cohere stylistically: a sampler from either label flows together remarkably well. Both make music that will never fill a dance floor, but instead requires some concentration on the listener's part. The difference, i have found, is that MMM is less beat-driven than n5MD. It is no coincidence that Brett Spaceman criticized MMM label head Yellow6 for releasing the mostly beat-less Painted Sky last year!
So: MMM makes ambient music that does not rely on beats. I find this music the perfect accompaniment to life, which is often so hurried that i find it hard to just take time to sit and reflect on things. The music of MMM helps me to do that, and it is often the backing soundtrack to my life.
Let us consider, as an example of the MMM sound, The Weather Clock, the latest, and fourth, album from MMM artist July Skies. I reviewed The English Cold, the 2004 precursor to this record here on EvilSponge. It was a tolerable album perfectly in tune with the MMM feel.
Some background, before we go any further. July Skies is mostly the project of Anthony Harding, who is also in the band Avrocar (another MMM artist). Assisting him on this release are members of Epic45, yet another MMM artist. The Make Mine Music scene sure is a little incestuous. Then again, what scene isn't?
To be honest, when i received this promo, i did not have high hopes. Oh sure, i enjoy the music this label does, and enjoy the music this artist does. I did not, however, expect to be "wowed" by what i heard.
Sometimes, having low expectations is a good thing. Put simply, this is the best thing that July Skies has done, to date.
The Weather Clock is an epic album of sweeping vistas. The simple sounds of strummed guitar, light vocals, bass, and the occasional effected guitar create the sense of large vistas of rolling hills, foggy mornings, and lazy days spent wandering in the cool grass. The music is very pastoral, and moves along at that unhurried rural pace. It is a fine album to get lost in, to put on and sit and observe the hurriedness of life.
The album starts with a recording of a female voice reciting the time, and then slowly ebbs and flows in washes of guitar. Here are some of the highlights.
The Girl on the Hill, which is the third track in, is the first to include vocals. Harding lightly speaks his vocals, accompanied by some simple guitar and a subtle bass riff. His voice is not as breathy as i found it to be on much of the English Cold, and in fact works very well with what he is doing with the guitar here. Eventually, Epic45's Ben Holton comes in with another guitar, so that there are two layers playing softly against each other.
This segues into See Britain by Train, which consists of three layers: an insistent strummed guitar, a slow bass riff gently driving the song along, and a cascading series of heavily echoed guitar. Simply lovely, and it progresses slowly yet steadily, growing as it moves, guided by that bass riff.
Another travel-themed song is Holidays to Wales, in which Harding adds a layer of clarinet over the gentle guitar for a lovely effect. The appearance of the clarinet, with its slow mournful notes, is unexpected on the album. Welcomed and enjoyed, but unexpected after all of the other horn-free songs that had preceded it, giving no hint of the upcoming appearance of clarinet. Interestingly done. (So ... Wales means woodwinds? I wonder how Indoor Miner, our Welsh correspondent, feels about that? I wonder if he plays the clarinet?)
Harding sings again on track 8, One Morning In May, while playing his guitar heavily chorused for a Guthrie-like effect. The guitar is even more interesting on the oddly titled Distant Showers Sweep Across Norfolk Skies. Here, Harding plays guitar in layers: one strummed and echoing and one chiming arpeggios. The overall effect reminds me a lot of the work of Felt during the Maurice Deebank years. The guitars are achingly beautiful, cascading in, well, a gentle rain like sound.
I am, quite simply, really impressed. This is the first candidate for "Album of the Year 2008". If you are interested in mellow, pastoral, beatless music, then you need to track this down. It sums up nicely what the Make Mine Music collective is all about, while at the same time raising the bar for that group of artists.
Very interesting, and rather lovely. Well done Mr. Harding.