Sandra Cross ‘The MMs Bar Recordings’ (Trunk, 2011)

As someone who writes about a lot of weird music, I can get desensitised to it. The soundtrack to an imaginary film about school dinners? Meh. A suite of Casio madrigals created in a haunted lighthouse? Boring. So if I said that an album of train announcements and general carriage ambience was one of my all-time favourites, you might not believe me. But it’s true, and here’s why.

While travelling on Midland Mainline between Leicester and London, artist Sandra Cross decided to record the announcements which informed passengers of various delights from the train’s buffet carriage, known as MMs Bar. These pieces, captured by Cross in 2006 and 2007, eventually made their way on to William English’s ‘Wavelength’ programme on Resonance FM, and, having been heard by Jonny Trunk, were then released as ‘The MMs Bar Recordings’ on his label in 2011.

At that point, I was a massive fan of field recordists such as musician (and Cabaret Voltaire co-founder) Chris Watson, whose work tended to revolve around the natural world. But what I hadn’t really encountered were artists exploring the complete mundanity of everyday life and actually finding magic there.

I listened to the record’s hubbub of announcements and carriage chatter obsessively, fascinated with how it registered between stark documentary and surrealist radio play. I began to recognise the hilarious microtonal variations between train managers, the idiosyncratic pause as one tries to remember the (fairly extortionate) cost of Quavers, or the raised intonation as another delivers the official excuse of the day for why hot drinks aren’t available. It’s immersive – you can almost feel the touch of grubby train seats next to your skin, as the person sitting next to you tries to read your newspaper while munching on their over-priced Quavers.

It’s a shame that ‘The MMs Bar Recordings’ isn’t more widely appreciated and held in the same regard as, say, those brilliant compilations of adverts from pirate radio stations which emerged recently. Where those records find a kind of haunted magic from within the detritus of a particular subculture, Cross manages to find it in ubiquity, in a situation that we’ve all experienced but to which we’ve never quite paid attention.

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