he opening track on Flashlight Seasons begins and already I’m reaching for the liner notes. Is this really the hot new talent on Warp? I check again – yes it states quite clearly “Warp Records 2004”. So…this must be a different Warp Records than the Sheffield label that brought such electronic staples as Aphex Twin, Autechre and Boards of Canada to the fore, right? Wrong.
So no—no robo-drill cut-up mayhem, no samples of next door’s dogs fucking, no post-rock algorithms and no three-hour re-contextualised ambient workouts. Instead a mere sapling of an acoustic guitar picks its way through the first bars of “Tunnels” and then a broken voice is heard to murmur “1, 2, 3, 4”.
Said voice belongs to West Country singer/songwriter Nick Talbot, a man who would have made Nick Drake look like Henry Rollins on an intravenous steroid drip. A DIY approach to recording and mastering means he doesn’t need to leave his bedroom and y’know, do exercise and nasty rough things like that. Recently joined by drummer Dave Collingwood and multi-instrumentalist Paul Nash, Talbot specialises in haunting pastoral acoustica that hangs in the air and chills you like the softest of autumn breezes.
But why am I so surprised that such a record exists on Warp? After all, the label has been releasing “rock” albums by acts such as Tortoise, Broadcast and Vincent Gallo for ages, so it should follow that Flashlight Seasons be released about now. And yet it doesn’t. Whereas the latter three acts fit in with the, errr... “warped” sensibilities of Warp, Gravenhurst are all roll-neck sweaters and sensible haircuts—gentle folk balladry for the Audi generation. There is little here to mess with your head, and while the music isn’t exactly AOR, there is a pervading feeling that this could have been recorded out of the Beautiful South on one of his darker days.
It’s a bit of a shame that more wasn’t made of these songs, though. Talbot is by-and-large a talented songwriter, evoking ghostly Dickensian images of twilight encounters and early-morning mischief in the English woodland, but the minimal production is not as liberating as he may lead himself to believe. Each track features Nick’s light falsetto vocal backed by fingerpicked guitar, a smattering of synth-work and the very gentlest of drumming. As a self-confessed maximalist, I’d like to have seen these spectral tales taken to another level—I want a full orchestra, backing choir and an accompanying DVD documentary of brutal killings on the moors. As it happens, Gravenhurst’s current musical approach does little to hide the fact that it’s all, well, rather wussy to be honest.
My major complaint is Talbot’s voice, a reed-thin nasal whine that cuts through the atmospheric synths and does little to evoke the true sentiment of his songs. “The Diver”, an otherwise excellent track, is destroyed by Nick’s earnest simpering to the point where every in-breath sounds like a nail on a chalkboard. The wussiness ensues, and I find myself having to rewind on track 3, “I Turn My Face to the Forest Floor”, because he actually sings the words “murdering fuckhead” to unintentionally hilarious results.
However, there are points where Gravenhurst come into their own. “Damage II” features some especially pretty guitar work, breaking from the rather monotone strum’n’pick of the rest of the album. Elsewhere, the instrumentation on “Bluebeard” hints at what Gravenhurst will likely achieve on later outings, a slight production that builds and builds around whimsical synths and harmonica.
Everything on Flashlight Seasons is well-meant, but it just lacks that certain punch that will take the band into the darkly romantic world they wish to inhabit. Perhaps with Talbot’s newly-joined bandmates, and a little more cash at their disposal, the songs will come into their own. Till then, mucking around with 8-tracks won’t cut the mustard for Gravenhurst’s vision.
Reviewed by: Charlie Frame
Reviewed on: 2004-07-20