AN APPRECIATION OF OH, SEALAND, THE NEW ALBUM BY ODDFELLOW’S CASINO
(At The Helm Records, 2017)
At last a record that colours the dream.
Skittish electronica and plaintive acoustic strumming leads us deliciously into Land of the Cuckoo, the first song on Oh, Sealand, David Bramwell’s new album as Oddfellow’s Casino. Bramwell is ploughing the same star kissed field as artists such as Robert Wyatt, Broadcast, Cat’s Eyes, Matt Berry and Grasscut, with their mixtures of ghostly folk and eerily urgent song craft, but his accomplishments single him out for special praise. The beauty and elegance of both voice, lyric and melody is exceptional. These are the kind of songs the Wicker Man’s Paul Giovanni might have written if had lived to update his own template, and yet these supercede even those seminal efforts with an ease and grace you rarely detect in popular song.
Its the fashioning of a wholly believeable world and its aesthetic in sound that strikes you most, with Bramwell’s ear for detail, texture and the resonance of simple lines and motifs an offshoot of his work as author, broadcaster and radio documentarian. The press release for the album talks of pastoral explorations of the English countryside and of Bramwell’s frustration with the home nation, alongside his fascination with it. He captures that scent of Albion and ancient England that lingered in such forgotten masterpieces as The Black and Green Knights of yore and which filters through the work of the playwright David Rudkin, whose seminal TV play Penda’s Fen is eulogised later on in the album. More importantly he adds his own singularity, making him very much part of Alan Moore’s musical coterie that includes the more ephemeral soundscapes of David J and Tim Perkins, and it is therefore no surprise to learn that the album was part inspired by John Higgs’new book Watling Street, leading to the record’s finest cut on which a certain Northampton bred shaman and magus of the muse cameos .
The lyrics throughout this collection house genius levels of observation and evocation centred around a troubled isle. If England can be seen to resemble the sealand of the title in the most general of senses, then it is a state of place and being that is slowly becoming unmoored from its points of origin and these worries and affects are evidenced in Cuckoo’s opening verses:
‘In the gardens of stone/ the storms of England are shaking our bones/ Tearing the roofs off/ There’s a hawk on the wire/ There’s a fox in the schoolyard..’
Warnings which are served by the flute like clarity of Bramwell’s voice and his exquisitely tasteful instrumentation. The summoning of the natural world under threat from invasive forces is an old one but at a time when music threatens to negate its own purpose in terms of meaning and in relation to the mainstream, here is a chance to wade through fresh rivers of intent and ever dampening and eroded landscapes in order to scale our own seas of endeavour and to unearth our own stars.
That the waters heal wounds and create borders is an image continued by the near title song Sealand, which tells of how an abandoned World War Two fort became an independent principality in 1967, under the auspices of Prince Roy and his equally Royal consort, Joan Bates, resistant to pirates and an attempted coup, and which is still retaining its standing today under the Bates’supervision. Here then is a folk tale (complete with delicately handled sea shanty style choir) made real and the music entrances as much as the words, through eloquent concision, invite and enveigle:
‘These are the last days of Rome/These are the dark days of summer…’ through to:
‘An island of no laws/crowning every house.. in which ‘the boy is on his own’and offering ‘warning shots if you get to close.. Six miles from the shore/we’ll take this land by force..’
Such sentiments settle like a curtain of night in our minds.
The words are powerfully chosen and show Bramwell’s writerly skill. We talk a lot in music about mult-instrumentalists creating believeable worlds and experiences, but little about artists who operate across several forms, fusing and exploring the bridges between them. Bob Dylan’s Tarantula is more acid off-shoot than literary marvel and only Gil-Scott Heron, Leonard Cohen, Alan Moore and Heathcote Williams have criss-crossed beween page and plectrum with as much efficiency as Bramwell demonstrates, and this is just the first two songs out of twelve.
A shimmering synth figure and propulsive bassline creates a rippling effect that leads us to Down in the Water with its people sleeping there; a powerful and deceptively simple image that promises a sense of both threat and evolution. The song mesmerises, with its idea and images recalling such neglected stories as the old BBC series, The Changes, with Magog sleeping under the earth, and yet more of David Rudkin’s work,most notebaly Artemis 81’s more outré moments, separate to its gothic premise. The sheer tunefulness of this simple descending melody, accompanying guitar clangs and synth scream passages lifts the spirit and bears it off all the way down through the darkened forest and out towards the waves of the night churning sea. A treated saxophone like threnody completes the song and sounds like the dew infused dream of a sleeping God seeking his final sanctuary. It is these carefully controlled forces that makes this record so extraordinary.
Sons and Daughters of a Quiet Land is as English as Ackroyd in which those ‘lit by the old ways hold you down by the collar..’ The sons and daughters of the lost town are reminiscent of the English weather and melancholy mothers of Grasscut’s wonderful song Richardson Road, and the gentle guitar and synth lines that Bramwell uses, speak of Pentangle, Vashti Bunyan, Bias Boshell’s Trees and the type of music you would want to write while sitting on Alderley Edge and looking in at the flame coloured windows of Alan Garner’s house, as he Brisnagamen’s on into the folkloric dark.
Swallow the Day, a co-write with Grasscut’s Andrew Phillips is this record’s Excellent Birds, written by Peter Gabriel and Laurie Anderson and also covered by them both. In Bramwell’s version of his and Phillips’ song, the carefully chosen motif and swaying melody sweeps you up instantly. Here then, is a balladeer of the old school. There is in his writing and delivery something wholly authentic and contemporary; a gentle effusion of sounds and atmosphere that completes itself as successfully as guitar maestro, Antony Phillips’ evocation of Tudor England in his first album The Geese and the Ghost.
Mustard Fields’s ‘milky skies’ tells us of the mixtures of dangers and refuge for lovers who are ‘Spies alone.’ The trumpeting elevation in melody and driving guitar line add a touch of Fred Firth in his gentler moments and is ushered along by the sheer pleasantness of Bramwell’s voice and the support of a heavenly voiced backing singer. The guitar then grows and growls to conclusion, showing both the power behind the idyll and the anger and frustrations felt by those bemoaning the corrupted land at the hands of the political, militaristic and possibly chemical chicanery.
Danu is a spoken word piece with Eno-esque backing that is taken from one of Bramwell’s radio documentaries in which he eulogises the River Don that flows from South Yorkshire to the Arndale Centre, Sheffield and beyond. It is a wonderful evocation and a propulsion to Eno’s own On Land, adding words as music to create and to summon old earth.
The Ghost of Watling Street is the album’s masterpiece and lead single. Written at the request of John Higgs to complement his new book, it charts a journey along Britain’s oldest road and features the aforementioned Alan Moore as the journey moves in search of ‘a black star,’ from the old Tyburn site to the late, great Steve Moore’s Shooters Hill, where Alan himself encountered many of his own wonders. It is Moore who then talks ‘of wandering too far from some ancient totem..that we must find our way back to..’ The guitars chime and charm as Bramwell’s voice returns, and takes on an enviable aural purety. The accompanying video, enabled by counter cultural centrepoint Megan Lucas is a gem of impressionistic response to Bramwell, Higgs and Moore showcasing this seminal territory and the dream like beauty and brevity of the song ably represent this collection of masterly pieces, like any great single should.
Children of the Rocks echoes its title with bluster and force and reverberating guitars lift and soar accordingly as ‘rains came in autumn to cool the earth..’ There is a touch of seminal late 80’s indie band, The House of Love to this track as Bramwell summons not only ancient England but also a fairly recent one, and at a time when musical expression as a whole actually meant something. Now it is up to people and bands such as Oddfellow’s Casino and the numerous interconnected associations and practitioners to take a gamble on the intricacies of innovation and the arrangement of limited resources in order to remind us of what is truly possible. Music must change as Pete Townshend once said, rather shakily, if only because it is the most ordered of responses capable of the greatest affect on the largest number of people. Should this album not reach the multitudes it will alter and redefine the privileged ones who do encounter it. It is as Townshend once described King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King, ‘uncanny.’
Josephine’s simple piano outlays a developing song of dedication. One senses and almost hears a candle lit night in an old century as the song’s protagonist and his unclaimed love seek unity. A suffused slow trumpet solo speaks of this hopeful joining and acts as an enchanting Robert Wyatt like echo to the noises and music conveyed.
Penda’s Fen military snare heralds ‘the roads that define you’ as the song perfectly captures the story and situation of that long lost albeit recently revived and released piece of televisual magic. The play, a startling love child forged by David Rudkin’s preoccupations with myth, homosexuality and societal repression and oppression, and Alan Clarke’s thrillingly artful execution is represented by the music’s growing power, as Bramwell as Stephen the protagonist of the play seeks to gain the ‘land of Jerusalem’ and prove himself as God’s or England’s own rightful son.
Blood Moon guides its hero home through an easeful crest and fall of piano, in which ‘the skin and bones of the old world are his.’ They are ours too, under the gentle and refined guidance of David Bramwell’s Oddfellow’s Casino, in which we gamble not with our own fates and fortunes but rather with our hopes and dreams about what is possible in artistic endeavour in any form, but particularly in music. What this album shows above anything else is how artfully controlled forces allow for a true breadth of expression to create songs and music that lasts in the mind for as long as it lingers in the heart. The songs that comprise this collection are intellectually thrilling and emotionally appealing. The record is appealingly packaged and actually about something. It is music that enlivens the brightest morning and adds resonance to the deepest night. Listening to it one is easily transported to the very edges of England. Stare now at the surrounding waters that frame and dare us and as you listen there will be moments in which you are transported and finally able to summon all forces and to locate your own star in the sea.
David Erdos 24/7/17