Plaintive, plangent, poignant – three words to describe the music of this intriguing duo
This is the third album from production duo Andrew Phillips and Marcus O’Dair, whose subtle and sublime tech-buzzed post-rock soundtracks the natural world with a quiet, understated grace that is truly beguiling. ‘Everyone Was A Bird’ takes its title from Siegfried Sassoon’s poem ‘Everyone Sang’, an account of the announcement of the armistice at the end of the First World War in 1918, when singing spontaneously broke out in the trenches.
The concept of bird flight courses through this album, conjuring images as it goes. This really is supremely evocative music. Listen to the majestic melody of ‘Red Kite’ and you can almost see the endangered bird of prey soaring through the air, hovering on thermals, swooping in for the kill. Ditto ‘Curlews’, which invokes visions of these long-billed waders flying around an estuary by predicating its tune on gentle gliding arpeggios of piano and fluttering strings.
The point of difference for ‘Everyone Was A Bird’, compared to Grasscut’s previous releases, is that they’ve added a lot of live instrumentation. O’Dair himself plays piano and double bass, Aram Zarikan features on drums, and violin and viola are provided by Emma Smith and Vince Sipprell. This works to lend the sounds a liveliness and a resonance, and the orchestration articulates Phillips and O’Dair’s musical ideas in a vivid technicolour which powers the emotional sway of it all. The album is permeated by the taint and tint of melancholia: there is a sense of capturing the natural world, but also a feeling that it might be lost, or perhaps not in the robust state it was just a short time ago.
However, this is not a purely instrumental exercise: it is augmented considerably by the addition of vocals. Phillips’ voice is reminiscent of Green Gartside from Scritti Politti at times – that kind of soft, somewhat woozy dreaminess – and there are strong literary inspirations behind the words, including allusions to and sampled recordings of WG Sebald, Philip Larkin, TS Eliot and Ezra Pound, among others. Guest vocalists include Elisabeth Nygård, whose contribution to ‘Snowdon’ is serene and spellbinding, Adrian Crowley and Seamus Fogarty.
There is a strong sense of place throughout, a psychogeography, and while listening to the tracks it helps to locate them in the topography that inspired them. ‘Islander’, the opener, is set in Jersey, where Andrew Phillips grew up; ‘The Field’ and ‘Snowdon’ are set on the Sussex Downs, near his current home in Brighton. The rest of the record is a paean to the picturesque Mawddach estuary in west Wales, where the Phillips family come from originally. And as an added bonus, the album comes with superb liner notes by nature writer Robert Macfarlane, which provide an apposite cerebral accompaniment to this thoughtful and beautifully reflective music.