Singers eh? There seems to be something of a lack of vocalists who can grab your attention these days. Where are the likes of those who use the voice as an instrument, to add a texture, a rhythm, people like Liz Fraser, acts like Kraftwerk, Underworld, Cabaret Voltaire… appreciate it’s a high bar, but it’s not unusual to put something on in the ES office that sounds great until some so-so singer strikes up, and off it comes.
So this meeting of minds between Wrangler and John Grant, with two very distinctive vocalists, the idea made us a bit twitchy, excited, but twitchy, if we’re honest.
So what does John Grant bring to already considerable party provided by Stephen Mallinder, formerly of aforementioned Cabaret Voltaire, Phil Winter of Tunng and Ben “Benge” Edwards (who we’ll get to in a minute). Well, cut John Grant in half and it does it not say “synthy goodness” rather than “torchsong troubadour” right through his middle. It does. Listen to the title track from 2013’s ‘Pale Green Ghosts’, or the belting ‘Sensitive New Age Guy’ or maybe try 2015’s ‘Grey Tickles…’ and luxuriate in the squelch-fest of ‘Snug Slacks’ or the zips and zaps and zups of ‘You & Him’. He’s our kind of people is John Grant.
Credentials confirmed then, the seeds for Creep Show (the name came to Benge in a dream we’re told) were sown when Grant joined Wrangler to celebrate Rough Trade’s 40th anniversary at London’s Barbican in October 2016. Not ones to muck around, they wrote a whole new set of material for the occasion, like you do. “If you work with someone, test yourself, see what’s buried under the soil,” explains Mal.
By last April, what was buried under the soil had evolved, and with Grant hooking up again with Wrangler at the North Atlantic Flux mini-festival he was curating for Hull’s City of Culture, ‘Mr Dynamite’ really began to take shape. Recorded at Benge’s Cornwall studio, which is fast becoming the go-to place for anyone remotely interesting in making a good record, thanks not only to the wall-to-wall vintage synth collection, but to Benge himself, a man so unassuming we’d wager he’d barely be recognised if he pushed your buttons. Which we suspect is just the way he likes it.
And yet he is at the very heart of this, as he is at the heart of making way too much good music for one man alone. It’s greedy is what it is. Last year, his mitts were all over at least three of our Top 20 albums of the year (answers on a postcard).
Even by Benge’s increasingly high standards, ‘Mr Dynamite’ feels like a high-water mark. A record where everything is just right, the combination of these four sparking off each other is way more than the sum of its parts.
“Mr Dynamite is real,” explains Mallinder. “It’s disturbing, he blows shit up.” And the whole shebang very much feels like that. Here is record that has a musical force all of its own. You’d think there’d be a dividing line between the two vocalists. Sure, when Grant is crooning (see the sleek ‘Modern Parenting’, the night stalking ‘Endangered Species’, both with soul-fuelled backing vocals, or on the epic closer ‘Safe And Sound’) there is no doubt it’s him, but the rest of the time? The voices are often distorted, manipulated (beyond buggery on occasion), phased and flanged and time-shifted half to death. Once upon a time you’d be pretty safe to assume it was Mal on the mic. Not here.
We especially love the dark side all this vocal buggery aboutery lends ‘Mr Dynamite’. The after-dark electro of ‘Lime Ricky’ is a joy, but it’s ‘K Mart Johnny’ that really stops us in our tracks. It throbs away, distant voices drifting in an out, until it gives way to a time-stretched narrative about a plastic dinosaur, three feet tall, red with yellow plastic spots, told by Grant. It’s quite an unsettling childhood tale that reveals itself further with each listen.
The final two tracks, are epic. ‘Fall’, a twinkly, measured Kraftwerk-y nod clocking in at over seven minutes, is sublime, while the aforementioned singalong ‘Safe And Sound’, at a little shy of nine minutes is a proper lesson in how you finish up an album. Nine tracks, all killers, built for two sides of vinyl. If this isn’t riding high, very high, on our album of the year list come Xmas we’ll have had one heck of year.