THE PHOENIX FOUNDATION? To be honest, I’ve felt a bit left out of that group’s admirer’s club. It’s one I would like to belong, as it’s full of erudite, intelligent music fans who know an erudite, intelligent band when they hear it. They’re probably Wilco fans, too. In both cases, I’ve never quite been able to see (or hear) what the fuss was about, despite persistent attempts.
It’s with some joy, then, that I can report a breakthrough. Wild Bill Ricketts, erstwhile member of the Phoenix Foundation, has made an album (his second, apparently) that even a dumb ass like me could appreciate.
There’s probably a surfeit of what they once called albums of “imaginary cinema” – instrumental music full of evocative musical constructions vivid enough to spike the listener’s imagination, theoretically. But after all, there’s a surplus of everything these days. Whatever, Wild Bill works in a crowded domain, and does so with enough points of difference to make a difference, and to make it worth our while slapping the platter and pushing ‘play’.
West Wind is quite different to all those would-be film music guys who go for mirror-Morricone tributes or try to sound like some cool but cheesy late ‘60s European art trash film. Neither is it trip-hoppery fodder, or smooth enough for cafes. There’s a fair bit of dissonance in these at times quite interesting sonic collages.
There’s a virtual orchestra of like-minded Wellywood contributors, and despite the appearance of Riki Gooch there’s only one song with a bit of Fat Freddy skank. The instrumental portfolio includes the likes of cello, autoharp, trumpet, tuba, various saxes, flugelhorn and vibraphone. But it’s not the individual sound or textures but the overall atmosphere generated by a combination of performance, arrangement and (I would imagine, but can’t confirm) post-production, that makes it somewhat unique.
Witchdoctor readers may be gobsmacked by the engineering job. It all sounds like it’s been recorded on an old 8-track, then doubled, and doubled to fit all the different instrumental parts, until most of the dynamic and muscle and texture has been leeched out like an animal skin in the sun. I can report that on one track there’s even some noticeable distortion. Despite this raw and essentially lo-fi sound, someone has made sure that there’s plenty of stereo bounce from speaker to speaker, which gives it a slightly woozy, psychedelicised feel. So, while audio fans won’t be able to get off on the sparkling clarity of any one instrument, the lack of dynamic makes it sound more atmospheric and dreamy. (Hint: Play it on a cheaper stereo, where it will sound much, much better).
The only caveat for me is the likelihood that, once listened to and enjoyed a couple of times, this will go into a catalogue of seldom-listened-to titles with a few thousand other “intriguing but…” albums. But then again, if I put it on “shuffle” on the iPod, it’s bound to crop up and intrigue me all over again, track by random track. GARY STEEL
Music = 3.5/5
Sound = 3/5