Co-Pilot, ‘Rotate’, (Dell’orso)

Sweet Treats

Anyone fancy a 99? It’s telling that what’s surely the album of summer 2023 begins with the distorted, dream-like tinkles of an ice cream van recorded from Jim Noir’s bedroom window. Because Noir and collaborator Leonore Wheatley have crafted an album that is the psychedelic pop equivalent of those mouthwatering price lists stuck beside the hatch of every roving, white-coated Mr Whippy.

The opening track ‘Swim To Sweden’ is a smooth white chocolate Magnum, perfect to the point of disquiet, but don’t worry – we soon dive headfirst into the tangy orange Solero of ‘Move To It’. Meanwhile, ‘Motosaka’ is a chocolate-dipped Fab lolly with… oh, what’s that? You want more detailed thoughts than just a few lazy ice cream comparisons? Spoiled kids, the lot of you.

There is something of every treat-filled, bittersweet summer holiday here, though. Davyhulme dabbler Noir has, of course, long since mined the unfettered creativity of childhood for inspiration, even if his 2019 album ‘A M Jazz’ and 2021 EP ‘Deep Blue View’ were in serious danger of sounding mature, the drizzle-soaked Manchester equivalent of Beck’s early 2000s confessionals.

And Wheatley, too, has something of the innocent about her, having lent deliciously floaty vocals to the retro beats of The Soundcarriers and International Teachers Of Pop. Holed up in Noir’s DookStereo studio, they’re like presenters from some parallel version of ‘Play School’, surrounded by battered toys, a teetering pile of xylophones, cracked maracas and that weird metal thing that goes “dooooing” when you hit it.

Certainly, there’s a whiff of hauntology here. Just listen to ‘Swim To Sweden’ – it would be a wilful contrarian who heard Wheatley’s mantra-like refrain “Be careful how you go / There’s danger in the snow” without picturing an ill-fated Tufty the squirrel vanishing beneath the blizzards of some crackly Public Information Film. And ‘Brick’ feels like a glorious homage to the deceptively unsettling nuggets lurking in the strangest corners of old ‘Play Away’ albums. “Now you’re safe, now you’re home, close the door and light the fire,” sings Wheatley, as squelchy synths and sinister fuzz guitars mass menacingly outside the front room window. “Those dark days, light years away / It’s so strange to think we never planned to stay…”

The pair have stressed the playful DIY nature of it all, citing blissful afternoons experimenting after trips to the local “offy” for liquid inspiration. That woozy joy comes over, too. The money they saved in bar bills presumably went on clearing Ryuichi Sakamoto’s 1978 classic ‘Thousand Knives’ to become the foundation of ‘Motosaka’. With the addition of a rubbery McCartney-esque bassline and Wheatley’s winsome sigh of a vocal, it becomes a different song but an absolutely fitting tribute.

Similarly soulful is ‘I Am 1’, with Wheatley’s vocal prowess fully let loose on what feels like a glassy-eyed cousin to Harry Nilsson’s heartbreaking ‘One’: “We are the numbers, you and me / All of the others change, no one said it was meant to be”. As her voice cracks, Noir gives free reign to his longstanding ‘Pet Sounds’ obsession, joining her with an overpowering choir of his own massed, multitracked vocals: “I am one and you are two / Freeze the water, forgive you.” It’s the most touching moment on the album.

It marks a subtle turning point, too. If the album is a summer holiday, then ‘She Walks In Beauty’ is the wistful afternoon when the ice cream van stays shuttered up and the rain hammers against the boarding house window. Built around Lord Byron’s lovelorn 1814 paean to the heavenly radiance of (ahem) his cousin’s wife, it begins with muzzy Boards Of Canada synths and drifts elegantly into the kind of blissful melancholia that Air once made their stock-in-trade. “Footsteps sold by duty, it trickles down the rooted line / Her tears have hardened over time”. It is, apparently, a poignant tribute to Wheatley’s own grandparents.

Then it’s nearly time to pack our cases. ‘Spring Beach’ is a charming collision of jazzy cymbals, chattering synths and Wheatley at her most ethereal. And the closer, ‘Corner House’, is the most unashamedly retro offering here, beginning with descending Kinks guitars that will melt the heart of anyone (surely everyone?) who has ever wept a wistful tear at ‘Waterloo Sunset’. Then it swells into something darker, with Wheatley almost spectrally intangible: “Don’t be so close, dear / You aren’t what you might appear.”

Let’s go back to the ice cream analogies – it’s the last trickle of melted rum and raisin, running down the sleeve of a cagoule still caked in sand. But your dad’s car engine is idling, and it’s time to head for home.

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