Archive for February, 2012

Beth Jeans Houghton and the Hooves of Destiny- Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose

February 6, 2012

First things first; this isn’t folk. It’s far better than that. Although she may have played alongside them in the past, Beth Jeans Houghton has virtually nothing in common with Mumford and Sons, or with any of the conservative nu-folk acts that seem so bound up with Cameron’s Big Society, Little England worldview. Nor, for that matter, does she share much with the more forward-thinking fringes of contemporary alt-folk populated by Joanna Newsom, Devandra Banhart and Patrick Wolf. The only folkish act I would conceivably compare her to would be the excellent if undervalued Trembling Bells, whose own recent work has seen them extend into prog, pop, psychedelia and near-metal to a degree that renders categorisation meaningless. Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose is similarly eclectic; and as such, simply qualifies as the first great experimental pop album of 2012.

The horns and martial drums of ‘Sweet Tooth Bird’ that fade into a queasy, vari-speeded vocal refrain give us the first clue that we’re not just dancing a sedate jig on the village green here. The dying fall of Beth’s otherworldly voice leads us through an ambitious two-minute pocket symphony which Phil Spector would have been proud of, had he been called in to produce something along the lines of Bowie’s Hunky Dory– and not been an unregenerate misogynist sociopath, of course. ‘Humble Digs’ may feature what sounds suspiciously like a banjo, but the complex melodic arrangements- wintry, ghost-ridden- are on a par with the pastoral classical /prog rock of William D Drake. Previous single ‘Dodecahedron’ sparkles and shines like a walk through the midnight snow, the drop to echoing drum and two-note bass before the choral coda opening a momentary portal into some heavenly 60s girl group afterlife.

Township guitars and chanted backing vocals strut around the tattoo beat that seems to be the album’s default rhythm on ‘Atlas’, like Bow Wow Wow all grown up (a good thing). “Red wine and whisky are no good for me,” Beth sings, sounding like she’s speaking from hard-learned experience, despite her tender age of 21. Lyrics are at first understandable only in snatches, the meaning of songs coming through gradually, if at all, as the songs swirl around in a barrage of sensory impressions, constantly switching back on themselves. It’s tempting to interpret this as a manifestation of Beth’s acute synaesthesia, where sounds become colours, visual images sounds and so forth- a condition so powerful she apparently struggles to read a book as a result. For the sufferer, it must be excruciating; for the listener, the results are positively intoxicating.

A version of ‘Nightswimmer’, originally released on a single for Static Caravan in 2009, bears some traces of Beth’s folk-club beginnings, her mesmerising voice rising above the arrangements of banjo, harpsichord and violin, from a dusky, honeyed murmur to shimmering high notes of clear glass and starlight. Compared to her more recent material it’s strikingly straightforward, an unrepentant love song with recognisable verses and choruses; though even here the sentiment is ambiguous, with Beth seeming to half-hope her only love will never return from his mysterious night swims.

‘The Barely Skinny Bone Tree’ is a thing of desolate beauty; the gorgeous melodic arrangements of ‘Lilliputt’ place it in a tradition of the grand orch-pop follies of the late sixties, like Paul and Barry Ryan’s ‘Eloise’ or the Zombies’ ‘Time of the Season’ as well as having the haunting fragility of prime Pentangle. ‘Veins’ on the other hand, with its nods to soul and gospel, harks back to classic girl-group pop via Laura Nyro, Kate Bush and Bat for Lashes. Fiery Furnaces spring to mind too on ‘Franklin Benedict’, pure prog-pop with crunching electric guitars, tight jazz piano and strings. By the time the album closes on the swirling harpsichords and cackling clown voices of ‘Carousel’ the barrage of fleeting references points becomes so meaningless that we have to conclude that we are listening to a work of restless originality and precocious vision. Folk, pop, prog, soul? Categories be damned- the Cellophane nose leads. We can but follow.