|Debut CD by Manchester acoustic duo Corvus|
Gloves of the Skin of a Fish is the debut CD of Manchester duo Corvus. It was recorded in October 2008 and January 2009 at Epona Studios in Manchester, England. Corvus are Mike Billington and Bill Pook. They play all the music. It’s acoustic music. And they have produced the album, with Mike also doing sound engineering. Bill has written all the original pieces here (five of ten), plays guitar, mandolin and piano and does most of the singing and vocalisations. Mike sings some, but is focused primarily on providing accompaniment on an impressive array of woodwinds and percussion instruments. Some are quite exotic: he plays three different recorders, bass crumhorn, the Spanish bagpipes, and the Indian harmonium.
|Folk shawms (picture from the Corvus webpage -- http://www.corvus.org.uk/index.php?page=9)|
The album is a rather uneasy blend of traditional folk and avant-garde singer-songwriter material. Why uneasy? Well, the original stuff is quirky - sometimes bizarre - poetry set to inventive, unconventional music. And that sits alongside the folk stuff. They do traditional folk: the broadside ballad "Newlyn Town", a cover of Richard Thompson’s neo-folk ballad "Beeswing" (from Thompson’s Mirror Blue album), and a version of Leonard Cohen’s "Who By Fire" (from Cohen’s LP New Skin for the Old Ceremony – one of my favourite discs of 1974). But the folky tracks are beside the point. The interesting music here is the original material.
The words are not traditional song lyrics, but poems set to a musical accompaniment. All written by Bill Pook - he also does vocals. They are not sung; they’re delivered dramatically - often declaimed. The narrator adopts a highly ironic, detached tone. For example, in one song, he addresses a vocative flourish at a garden slug: “O glorious gastropod, you snot your humble path through my neighbour’s chrysanths.” (strangely, this short piece – only 1:16 – is one of the most effective). And in another piece he offers a meditation on the weight of the human head.
The narrative tone here is problematic, because it tends to distance the listener, which is counter to the way pop music is usually pitched at an audience – it is usually designed to seduce the listener with many layers of slicked-over, heavily produced “grease”. The production here, by contrast, is very simple and open. It’s pure. So, the singing voices are bare – no reverb or double-tracking, and the weakness of some vocals are often bravely exposed. But that’s the point. This sort of stuff is music as art – it’s not pop music.
Some of the original stuff is very effective and successful. Some is not quite. It needs the words and the musical arrangement to mesh just right. For me, lyrics, arrangements and performance work best on "Dave’s Fish", "Thoughts on a Slug" , and "A Week in January/ Donal Og" (not an original).
|Corvus is a Manchester acoustic duo featuring Bill Pook (left) and Mike Billington|
The music works best, I think, when it is set outside the folk tradition. Billington’s recorder accompaniment on "Newly Town" works, for example, because it's a traditional folk song - but on "Gorilla" the similar folky phrases don't quite fit. The folky recorder tropes that punctuate the line-ends don’t feel right for the song. Having said that, however, "Gorilla" is the true epic of these original songs. It features an extended musical prologue on acoustic guitar which sets the scene, and then moves into an extended metaphor about 'monkey love', full of sexual innuendo. Amusing!
"We'll have litle ones in dozens eating bananas in sin;
Never mind the white hunters, just push the monkey in;
I'm gorilla for you baby."
"Heavy Head" starts promisingly with accompaniment from Billington on an indian harmonium and Pook recounting the gruesome execution of Mary Queen of Scots at Fotheringay Castle. But then moves into bizarre territory. After Mary's head is decapitated, the narrator ponders methods for calculating the weight of a human head, and then ends with a reminiscence about his days as a milkman. This track, "Heavy Head", vies with “Woof! Woof!” for the choice of weirdest on the album. "Woof! Woof!" begins as a tribute to a dog named Tess. Nice enough. But then veers into a strange series of refrains punctuated by the sound of the bass crumhorn:
"Gav, gav, gav gav, privet my dobra pierc," goes one refrain. You what?
The music is always interesting. Pook sticks mostly to acoustic guitar, plays well, and finds some interesting ways of accompanying his original stuff. Billington is mostly into woodwinds and percussion. He punctuates the pieces with interesting flourishes on exotic percussion - like ghatam, rainstick and Tibetan bells.
Suffice it to say that I found the album an interesting, but sometimes strange, experience. It was different; I listened to it a lot - to give the work a full chance to make its mark. It's the original material that makes it a fascinating listen - even if some of it does not quite come off.
Mike Billington tells me that Corvus is planning to release their second CD this year. I look forward to hearing it - to see where they go from here. I'll let you know when it is available. Meanwhile, if you care to check it out, you can order Gloves of a skin of a Fish from the Corvus website: