Sunday 5 February 2012

CD Review: Corvus - "Gloves of the Skin of a Fish"

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  --

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:


  1. I too have listened a few times to Corvus’s album, “gloves of the skin of a fish.”
    I have thought about this title and wondered about it’s meaning and how Michael and Bill could have come with it. A fish does appear in the song, “Dave;s Fish,” but I found it difficult to find references to skin and gloves. It is as though the two of them put a collection of nouns into a bag and drew three out and then joined them together in the semblance of sentence using prepositions and the definite article.

    I found the music interesting and often pleasant to listen to throughout the album. I thought Bills guitar playing and Michael’s experimentation with flutes, recorders, Indian harmonium, drums, chimes, ghatam and kalimba, very good throughout the tracks.

    In Gorilla, I agree with Clive, the same fluty background music didn’t quite fit with the nature of the lyrics. Gorilla seemed to be full of innuendo and double entendres of a sexual nature. Nothing wrong with that of course, but it was melodramatic and lacked humour and if there was humour it was too earnest and obvious. Some ability for Bill and Michael to laugh at themselves would have made it fun. It was neither erotic or sensual but more grinding sado masochistic in it’s portrayal of sex.

    Dave’s Fish made me smile. The lyrics were not so much avante garde as just an odd evocation of the world from the point of view of a fish. Odd points of view do not automatically make them avante garde. Only somebody with their own aquarium who has spent many hours meditating on the watery world in front of them and the lives of the fish they feed would even care. Who cares what a fish thinks?

    “Thoughts on a slug.” I’d like to ask how many battles Michael and Bill have spent with the slugs in their respective gardens? “Gummy mucoid unconciousness,” an interesting exercise at combing words. There is much of this experimenting with lyrics throughout Bill and Michael’s songs.

    I thought the Tudor theme in,”Heavy Heads,” was expertly backed by Michael on the Indian Harmonium which seemed to create a Tudor style quality to the backing music. The story of Mary Queen of Scots simply told in this number would entertain and inform a class of children. However the preoccupation with the weight of a severed head seemed a contrast too far, with the first part of the song. Two subjects in one song. The weight of a head appears to be an interest of Bill’s anyway.

    Woof Woof, is a simple, sacrine coated, syrupy centred song about mans inhumanity to dog. However when pathos is required at the point the man is suspected of being cruel to the dog, the all too sugary monsoon of words that surround this moment weaken it and destroy it’s impact. After the story of the poor dog we are treated to a series of repeated sounds and phrases which are all but incomprehensible. What are they about?

    I think on the whole the album is worth listening to though with many intriguing and interesting bits to it. I am looking forward to what Bill and Michael will produce next.

    1. Tony:

      The title of the album comes from a verse in the piece "A Week in January/Donal Og""

      "You promised me a thing that is not possible.
      That you would give me the gloves of the skin of a fish.
      That you would give me the shoes of the skin of a bird.
      And a suit of the dearest silk in Ireland."

  2. Thanks, Clive. That's my fault for concentrating on the original material and just giving the traditional stuff a quick cursory once over.

    But come to think of it it would be a great way to come up with a title all the same.

  3. A comment from Mike Billington (one half of Corvus) - he asked me to post it here:

    Yes, the title of the album was arrived at from a line taken from an 8th century Irish poem "Donal Og". It does seem as if words were tossed into the air and picked at random as with the Dada games played by the dadaists and the surrealists such as Yves Tanguy and Andre Breton.

    "Woof Woof!", although its refrain may seem a little sickly, is more a comment on how man's inhumanity to the animal kingdom, is often reflected in his inhumanity to his fellow species. The unintelligible refrains are simply the refrain "Woof woof, woof woof, hello my doggy friend" in German and then in Ukrainian. The origin of the song is when a microphone was put in front of Bill's eight year old niece. Typically the child refused to say anything but when pressed turned to the nearby dog, Tess, the heroine of this song, and came out with the refrain which is now immortalised in this song.

    The origin of "Dave's Fish" is that Bill kept fish in a Belfast sink in his garden and often had conversations with them. The men in white coats are on the case! The lyrics are not Bill's but adapted from a short story by Dave Eggar.

    Thanks for the review, and please, dear readers of this auspicious Blog, take a look at our website where you can hear the whole album by going to the news page and clicking the myspace link. If suitably enamoured, a hard copy can be had by post by going to the shop link.

    Mike Billington.

    (pp CORVUS)

    Slugs? No, Jennie treats them very humanely and rescues them to put in a place where they can't cause as much damage.