Originally released in a hardbound book by Second Language Records in a limited edition of 150.
For nearly a century, the physical format ruled the recording industry. A decade ago, the digital format began to intrude, and recorded music began to retreat to the ephemeral world. Now we seem to be experiencing a third wave, in which the physical format plays an essential role. In 2010, an increasing number of artists and labels offered limited edition projects, often replete with keepsakes. Most sold out immediately, to the delight of the artists and labels and the consternation of napping fans. The main champions (or culprits, depending on one's point of view): Cotton Goods, Fluid Audio and Second Language. The original releases of these labels have done much to restore the glory of the physical format. The brilliant irony: had these editions not been limited, fewer people might have noticed. Will vinyl ever again achieve the heights of the 80s, or CDs the heights of the 90s? Probably not. But for a while, the digital seemed to have had the last word, and now the winds are shifting once again.
Those fortunate enough to receive the Plinth package will have plenty to peruse: a hardbound, navy-hued book, secured with a printed ribbon (a necessity, as without the ribbon the book begins to curl outward like the waterbound journal it is meant to resemble); a gorgeous black-and-white photograph of tumultuous seas; a short story that unfolds between raised-letter, runelike pages; and Flotsam, a bonus 3" disc of outtakes and demos. It's really not fair of Second Language to do this, as the bar is now substantially raised for all other releases.
We're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but in this case, we can. Plinth (Michael Tanner) has been recording for the better part of a decade, sharing time as a member of numerous other acts, including Directorsound, Pantaleimon and United Bible Studies. Earlier this year, he released the ambitious Albatross, a bold (but commercially doomed) reinvention of a Fleetwood Mac project. Four of his solo releases are available on Bandcamp. But this release - even with the packaging factored out - is his magnum opus.
What makes Music for Smalls Lighthouse so special? The album tells a story whose outlines are visible even without the accompanying text; the field recordings are location-specific, and contribute to an overall mood; the composition is tender, the playing exquisite; and there's little else to which it can be compared.
The album's source material is simple, yet ferocious. In 1800, two men named Thomas, from "the fishing port of Solva in Wales", are sent out to man the Smalls Lighthouse, "a tree-house in the middle of the ocean". But in the rapidly-beating heart of a storm, one of the Thomases slips and dies. After building a coffin for his companion, and lashing him to the lighthouse, the other Thomas begins to have some terribly distressing dreams ...
The words, by Tanner and Diane Allton, may be pure Cemetery Dance, but the music is more foreboding than frightening, more mournful than monstrous. The most dramatic aural moment arrives in "The Beckoning Arm" with the sound of a hammer against wood. This section is perfectly integrated, and is clearly superior to the 57-second "Makeshift Coffin" on the bonus disc, which demonstrates Tanner's ability to make wise choices, even when it involves muting powerful sounds for the greater good.
Rain and wind are frequent guests. Crashing waves, creaking wood and leaking boards all play their part in furthering the narrative. Church bells toll at the beginning, middle and end, establishing a sense of completion: leaving port, remembering port, returning to port, albeit ravaged, white-haired and haunted. These field recordings are used for a purpose, not simply to provide ambience or to distract from musical deficiencies.
Tanner has chosen just the right instruments for the occasion. The album begins with a music box melody played on glockenspiel and dulcitone, the "once upon a time" that begins all good fables, even the horrific and Grimm. The opening track passes through many phases, seeming at times like the humblest of overtures, before landing on the still-peaceful shores of "Dawn Reflects in the East". On this track, the cello and bowed strings take over, establishing a Skelton-like atmosphere of layered nuance.
Tanner's piano does not emerge until the middle of the album, and when it does, it sounds restless and a bit distracted, like waves formed by dual currents. Such agitation echoes the mindset of the protagonist. When the bell-toned instruments return, they attempt to match the piano's melody, but fall prey to mild distortion as radio waves and a second, phantomlike piano melody swirl in the background. Sanity is being tugged by a very short string.
A foreign, unsettling noise - a "what is that?" noise - begins with a minute and a half left in the fourth track, as disturbing as a branch against a window, a scratching at the walls, a thump in the attic. Oh, someone is definitely losing it.
Despite its theme, Music for Smalls Lighthouse is the most curious of animals: a horror story with a conscience, with empathy, with tears. The concluding track, "Sirens", wants to wrap its arms around the living Thomas, to draw him into the distraction of fantasy, if only to protect his mind. Autumn Grieve's lovely, wordless voice is indeed siren-like, and one succumbs to its charms like a child to a lullaby. The album's greatest ambient melodies unfold here, as if conveying a wish that everything will turn out all right, even while knowing that it probably won't. The church bells toll, and the piano returns: now assured, now comforting, clear as a cloudless sky reflected in a placid sea, genuinely soothing and devoid of irony.
When looking for anticedents, few come to mind. Jasper TX's Singing Stones and Last Days' The Safety of the North are this album's closest relatives: albums that tell a tale of loss, harrowing or otherwise, but gently and with unguarded affection. We'll likely never see a glut of similar albums, because they are so difficult to do well, without theatrics or pretense. But when they are done well, as is the case here, they stick in the mind like cherished guests in a cozy house. It's not only their stories that we want to remember, but the ways in which they were told.
The obvious story here is the packaging, delightfully pleasing to the eye and skin. Yet the real story here is the music. Amazingly, Tanner has trumped the year's best packaging with even better contents. So I'm going to have to modify what I wrote earlier. You can't judge this book by its cover, because Music for Smalls Lighthouse is even better than it looks.
-Richard Allen (The Silent Ballet)
released 20 October 2010
Michael Tanner: Piano, Cymbala, Dulcitone, Cello, Glockenspiel, Bowed Strings and Field Recordings
Nicholas Palmer: Piano, Dulcitone.
Autumn Grieve: Voice.
Lucy Andrews: Viola.
Mastered by Simon Trought at Soup Studios, London.
Artwork by Lauren Winton and Jeff Teader.
Words by Diane Allton and Michael Tanner.
Special thanks to The Gibson Family and Trinity House for image use.
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