16 September, 2009

(Review) Les Étoiles - To Leave A Mark

The artwork still makes a statement, even on a digital release. Never to Alight, the debut album of Les Etoiles (aka David Fitzpatrick) which I was absolutely floored by last year, had a sepia-coloured photo of train tracks running through a wooded setting. The image is slightly blurred; the train is in motion and this moment has been snatched from a much longer journey. Happily, this can also be said of the album itself, which contained such intimate songs, of such fragility, that the listener could but hold their breath and be thankful they were captured at all. A perfect snapshot.

On the follow-up album, To Leave A Mark, which will be released by Records on Ribs this Friday, things feel slightly more permanent. Small touches with a drum machine, breathy vocal intonations and subtle production play around the edges of the songs, which fans of the first album will come to cherish just as much again. The songs are straightforward but uncanny, inexplicable. Fitzpatrick’s understanding is remarkable, that he never lowers the intensity nor raises the volume.

The cover art this time is the view of a rural world through a window, from a darkened room. Another snatched image, another brief sanctuary for reminiscence, another hideaway. The album relates to Fitzpatrick’s hometown of Bridgnorth, where the album was conceived and recorded, in his parent’s home. The songs are about Bridgnorth, about memory and the dissonance it can make with the present. A lack of familiarity with the town is no barrier – the songs are a powerful testament to the sheer weight of history and emotional ancestry that can build up in a place, any place.

The album only makes sense over time; borne out of mournful nostalgia, it becomes a foreign land to walk in. Just as in memory itself, powerful moments are littered all about. Time after time a delicately delivered lyric or deliberately deployed lick of guitar or keyboard will strike home. The whole is fraught with such familiarity and genuine emotion it seems impossible to be unmoved.

While the common threads are clearly traceable from Never To Alight, subtle changes have been made. The gentle breaths of keyboard on From High Rock, the quiet ticking percussion on A Home Never Seen and the distinct rhythm that The Clearing settles into, oddly reminiscent of downtempo I’m Not A Gun, are indicators of the breadth of Fitzpatrick’s palette. I love the use of the drum machine, which accentuates the feeling of the empty space as in a living room or attic, in a very similar way to the crackle and hiss on Library Tapes’ album Hostluft. A Few Remains is a terrific track, creaking into life and Fitzpatrick’s voice sounding fuller and weightier than ever before, working through the track before delivering a heartstopping intonation. My favourite is Taken By The Breeze, with its hesitant piano shifting through the minor key, and the slow whirring in the background as it draws to a close.

At the end of closer Along Castle Walk, the hermetically sealed world breaks down, and the rumble of traffic is audible. This is the kind of waking that I imagined at the end of the first album, too, a slow dawn. To Leave A Mark lasts for the shortest of forevers, seeming positively timeless while playing, then slipping quickly into silence. It’s a remarkably complex album, for one so straightforwardly written and recorded, for such a commonplace and (literally) homely subject matter. Like the best fairytales, these songs issue from a world endlessly recognisable and utterly enchanted. Simply, another astonishing record.

To Leave A Mark is released on Friday. Follow the link to the Records on Ribs site, where all their great records are released as free downloads. You basically have no excuse. Get Never To Alight as well!

On Friday night in Nottingham, Les Etoiles will play a free show at Jamcafé in the Lace Market. Support from El Heath, doors 8pm. Nottingham people, don't miss it!

1 comment:

somethingforjoey said...

Many thanks Rob. It's always nice when your friends say they like something you're involved in; even nicer when you think they mean it. But it really, truly means something when you know they understand it.