I’d just got my USB turntable working properly with Windows 7 (thanks to v2.0 of Audacity) and was busy converting King Crimson’s awesome 1974 offering, ‘Red’ to MP3 when what should pop up in my Inbox but a message from that purveyor of eclectic pop, Doris Brendel. Would I like to review her latest album, ‘Not Utopia’? I would. So here it is on my ipod and it takes some dogged scepticism in fate to believe that Messrs Fripp, Wetton and Bruford didn’t deliberately act as a portent to the arrival of this CD as the opening track, ‘No Lonely Girl’ essays the sort of metal guitar riff and pumping bass that could’ve been lifted from ‘Red’. Spooky.
As the daughter of a celebrated concert pianist and lead singer of cult 90s nu-progressive pop band, The Violet Hour, you’d expect a certain degree of musical nous from Ms Brendel and this album certainly delivers, especially in the areas that matter: variety and arrangement. Let’s take the latter first. What is it about musical arrangement that it seems to have such stigma attached to it? These days, all chart singles sound the same and for the very good reason that they use the same recipe. Take equal amounts of ‘beats’ and synths, chuck them into a computer and regurgitate at c120 bpm. Add auto-tuned vocals to taste. But it wasn’t always like this.
In the pre-digital days of Fripp/Wetton/Bruford, musicians who looked to produce anything outside of the 3 minute single were forced to arrange music in almost classical style (try all 12 minutes of ‘Starless’ from the aforementioned ‘Red’). Perhaps this is why ‘arrangement’ doesn’t figure these days – it has the taint of ‘Prog – do not touch with barge-pole’ indelibly stamped on it. But Brendel and her multi-instrumentalist collaborator, Lee Dunham, care little for prejudice and have stuffed NU with as many different instrument combinations as it will take, from Doris’s own haunting flageolet to rampant guitars, pastoral keyboards, plaintive oboes and String Quartets. As a result, each track has its own sonic identity and surprises you at every turn with its tonal intricacy – thus leading us neatly to point 2.
Variety. Rather than sounding like a current chart album bulging with cloned and ultimately boring, yet hopeful money-spinners, NU sounds wonderfully out of step in today’s market place in that every track is wilfully different. This type of madness was once the norm but not these days and Brendel should be applauded for her bravery. The album displays a multitude of styles from the Blondie pop/rock of ‘Going Out’ to the beautifully orchestrated ‘Kind To Be Cruel’ and the proggy overtones of my current favourite, ‘Passionate Weekend’ (which I would’ve loved to have heard developed to about twice its length!). In amongst these are acoustic ballads, bluesey laments and mad pseudo-metal all of which are imbued with her own brand of lyrical quirkiness and Dunham’s virtuoso playing (which is excellent, although I could’ve done without the drum machine – where’s Bill Bruford when you need him?)
Rising above this tapestry of sound is Brendel’s unique voice, all husk and bluesy emotion – a voice steeped in the sort of life experience that the likes of Katy Perry can only read about. As the blurb that accompanies the CD states, ‘There’s something for everyone’ and it’s true, but the other side of that particular coin is a slight lack of production consistency and the very real possibility that an audience bred on monotony is not going to like all of it. But then the White Album never hurt those scousers, did it? Personally, I love it, well the majority of it, anyway and by today’s standards that’s a firm recommendation. It’s not often that you get to hear an album like this in today’s blanded out world. Enjoy it while you can.