Thursday, June 17, 2010

CLOGS "The Creatures In The Garden of Lady Walton"

Anyone seeking out “The Creatures In The Garden of Lady Walton” as a ‘side project’ of The National will find themselves checking that are not listening to a mis-labelled CD or wrongly tagged digital file. The four-piece Clogs does indeed feature The National’s guitarist Bryce Dessner alongside Rachael Elliot (bassoon), Thomas Kozumplik (percussion) and Padma Newsome (viola). However that instrumentation, the presence of Australian contemporary classical composer Newsome in the line-up plus song titles like ‘Adages of Cleansing’ should be sending some clear signals that this record is not daughter of “High Violet”. Or even cousin twice-removed.

The opening trio of songs make this abundantly clear. “Cocodrillo” is a formal singing round, with interwoven highly mannered voices and chants - more Tallis Scholars than ‘Terrible Love’. The choppy rhythms and tense interplay of acoustic guitars, woodwind and percussion on the instrumental ‘I Used To’ comes across as over-caffeinated Penguin Café Orchestra. Then for ‘On the Edge’, harp strings and bassoon are paired with the operatic, floating vocals from Shara Worden (of My Brightest Diamond). When Worden sings “at the edge of the world / I will imitate a lyre bird” I cannot think a better description of her voice – extravagant plumage, ornate detail and utterly other-worldy. The startling variety in these three songs alone makes you feel as though you have travelled centuries and continents in just under ten minutes.

The album continues to weave a curious path, treading a line between contemporary classical composition, medieval madrigal and faerie-folk. Calming and graceful there is also a sense of questing, of seeking out something higher, something elusive and transcendental. Most songs were written during a residency by Newsome at the garden of the title, a rich botanical paradise on the island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples created by the widow of composer William Walton. Listening feels like being carried on a magical journey through that midnight garden: peaceful contemplation, wide-eyed awe at the wonders of nature but also occasionally feeling disoriented or unsettled in this mysterious, now-unfamiliar world.

'The Owl of Love' is one of those curious, unsettling moments. When Worden sings in the character of the nocturnal bird of the title (“at night I suck it in / I suck it in”) it is unexpected, peculiar and intensely spooky. It remains one of the most curious songs I’ve heard all year but also one I’m magnetically drawn to. When the album reaches ‘Last Song’ with vocals from The National's Matt Berninger it’s a different kind of shock: his world-weary baritone is so familiar, so here-and-now, it feels earth-bound and leaden compared to the rest of the album. Not a mis-fire but another unforeseen turn in the crooked path.

This is a complex record but never challenging or purely cerebral. For many listeners it will be entering strange, uncharted territories but there are rich rewards in its mysterious depths. It doesn’t feel disjointed (despite a four year period to write, record and mix with band members living on two continents) but it is constantly shifting, elusive and at times disconcerting. Without doubt an odd record it is also a deeply seductive one. Chamber music purists and blinkered fans of The National may dislike its border incursions across genres and forms but others should be charmed by its timeless, sublime music and its indefinable mysteries.

The Creatures In The Garden of Lady Walton [BUY or BUY]

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