Friday, 8 February 2008


“If you see a man who’s broken, take him all into your arms, because we don’t know where we come from and we don’t know who we are.”

You have to stop and pay close attention to a Santa Cruz-based musician and writer who knows his Too-Rye-Ay without needing to photocopy it word for word – new Hot Chip album, please take note – and since James Rabbit’s frontman (though that is a pitifully inadequate word) Tyler Martin personally sent me a copy of the group’s new album Coloratura I have to take even closer notice. There have been other James Rabbit records and songs, none of which I have yet heard; the music seems only to be available via mail order and there are no James Rabbit markers in the wracked racks of record shops.

But I would venture that the fifty or so minutes of Coloratura constitute as good an introduction to their work as any. 51 minutes, eighteen songs – or tracks, anyway – all of which collectively form a sort of supportive monologue; reflections on life, friends, emotional deprivation and regeneration, difficulties, pleasures, love and, again friends; although Tyler’s is the dominant voice, many other voices are present – the opening “We’re In This Together” (fortunately unrelated to Simply Red’s failed European Cup anthem) features an overture of recitatives from some of those friends and geniuses who have apparently sustained Tyler through troubles hinted at but rarely spelt out before he himself bounds forth, like a gladder Ben Folds, a more vigorous Michael Feinstein, a less grouchy Stephin Merritt, words, thoughts, thanks, observations on buying Eagles CDs or the reaction of coffee shop workers to a slightly prominent stomach.

More pressingly this writer has to acknowledge pieces like “My Choir” in which Tyler introduces or reintroduces these collective voices while reflecting on the songs they sing, including “This Is What She’s Like” by Dexy’s and, astonishingly (or not) “Strange Stairway” by the Bill Fay Group (I really need to set about republishing some of those Koons pieces) or indeed the “Obsessions” part of the long medley which constitutes track 13, in which he lists among his favourite musicians Robert Wyatt, Charlie Haden and Carla Bley – is he personally trying to tell me something here?

Overall, however, Coloratura is about rediscovering yourself in the dawn following crisis, and allowing yourself to be helped out of the tunnel – so it’s clear that I needed to listen to it, most palpably so from the slightly surprising blast of controlled rage in “Bright Blue Light” and the more sustained and chilling meditation on loneliness (“the door wasn’t very strong”) in the second half “Late December.” The dominant viewpoint, though, is sparkily positive; “George Gershwin,” the only song of theirs I already knew, is a remarkable thing, here preceded by a solo piano “Waltz” meditation by Robert Caceres – the world is largely unapproachable but Tyler knows he has the means to transcend its unappreciative greyness (the predominance of colours in his song titles, not to mention the album title itself, underlines that fairly definitively); these songs he hears, the rhythm in the slamming of a distant car door, the tunes which he knows no one else on the bus would understand even if they allowed themselves to listen to them – all help colour his world as both shield and banner.

He can do jerky new wave pop (“Girl Crazy!”) as well as anybody, his brief foray into Situationist free jazz amazing – (the medley “The Fucking Universe” and “Light Green Light” is an alternating neon splatter of furious unison riffing, accelerated spoken word and total freakout very similar to Ornette’s “We Now Interrupt For A Commercial,” the similarity strengthened by Libby Hendon’s very Colemanesque violin) – and there are odes, dedications to the one he loves (“My Heart Will Go Wherever It Wants”). Only once does he venture into Brian Wilson territory with the ebbing “She Speaks, Rings And Chimes,” second singer Thor Andersen sounding very Wilson-ish in the bridge). Perhaps most remarkably, tracks like “Red, Blue, Violet” and “Season Song” clearly seem to have pre-empted Vampire Weekend by about a year (the record was made in 2006) with its spacious hi-life flecks (I trust Mark S to correct that if it’s culturally wrong rather than certain other grumpy old – and by their own admission - dead-wood journalists).

The track which really caught me off-guard, however, is one of the album’s least demonstrative; “Monsoon” weaves its wettened way from Shortwave Set banjo to Autechre steely cubes with unassuming logic. It begins as a relatively jaunty male/female alternating vocal duet – Tyler and who I assume is Hendon, though it could equally be Rachel Williams or Raya Heffernan – and they are singing very quietly and carefully; homilies and premonitions: “Every sentence a grand design, every sigh is a prayer,” “The voice an independent thing anywhere it roams, whether it’s a laugh or a groan,” “The sounds in between the songs” – the notion of space, of patience, of doing your best to be heard when the voice has been knocked out of you…the banjo discreetly fades, a slightly dissonant piano enters, the surface revealing itself as far deeper than you thought, a beautiful pause to let the clicks, the rain and the invisible rays enter…then back to the banjo and the song and they sing so softly you nearly have to strain to hear their strains above the inaudibly ticking clock…then the elements, moving, unforced, destructive only if destruction is to be welcomed and encouraged. The quiet heart of a colourful and exuberant account of a return to something which we may as well call form. Find this record and then make an appropriate fuss to your local record shops and radio stations so that others may discover it and ensure that James Rabbit’s next step doesn’t get lost.