There is something truly haunted and haunting about Sir Ollife Leigh And Other Ghosts, something both beautiful and at the same time strange and unsettling. On the first encounter with the 11 tracks, the finish of the CD leaves the feeling of waking from a somewhat surreal dream and being unable to return, sifting the images as they fade, trying to grasp the sense of where you have just been. Thankfully, however, the chance to simply press play again makes this a dream you can repeat at will and with that comes a peculiar comfort as the familiarity of the return develops into a profound sense of wonder at these songs and what has inspired them.
Oliver Cherer is better known to some as Dollboy and perhaps also better known for the experimentation that places him on the cusp between traditional songcraft and electronica. Certainly some of his work might be more readily described as ambient, having more in common with the drifting soundscapes of Eno and others. That said under the Dollboy guise he has explored similar territory to Sir Ollife Leif And Other Ghosts before. His Beard Of Bees album was praised for it’s pastoral qualities and similarities to the likes of John Martyn, Nick Drake and Pentangle, which isn’t far from the mark of what we have here. There are also the collaborations with Tuung that also offer a valid signpost.
[pullquote]It’s almost as if Oliver lives in a twilight world and stares long and hard into the darkness and the shrouded corners of life.[/pullquote]But there’s something more. It’s almost as if Oliver lives in a twilight world and stares long and hard into the darkness and the shrouded corners of life. When the light fades, everyday objects take on a less solid appearance, the imagination can also run riot. Perhaps this is the creative fuel for this misty, dreamlike music. He explains his approach to making the record and using unfamiliar instruments, or playing them in unusual ways, which in turn creates its own set of rules. When put the two things together it’s not surprising that the results are uncommon and little other worldly.
Recorded in his studio in St Leonards-On-Sea, East Sussex, Oliver is helped by contributions from Riz Maslen on backing vocals, recorders and flute, Jack Hayter on viola and banjo and Alistair Strachan supplying horns. Oliver creates the templates for their varied contributions using an eclectic mix of instruments, from the obvious voice, guitars and keyboards, through synthesizers, to dulcimer, partch harp, sitar and zither. Some of the various stringed instruments are bowed rather than plucked, the elongated notes going some way to explaining the unusual sound.
On the opener, The Dead, the voices and phrasing also get a similar treatment and the layers of harmonies float from the speakers. The title sets up a record with a central theme of loss, but if that prompts fears of something dark and gloomy, the CD delights by being anything but. Although that title makes it clear that death is clearly part of the agenda, the album is an elegy, a requiem, rather than a wail or a moan. If the piece refuses to be confined by obvious song shape, it doesn’t lack for melodic pleasure. The words are a brief invitation, “Time to cross the river, time to cross the sea, time to go, come with me.” Written like that they appear stark, yet the effect is more polyphonic and choral and oddly quite spiritual, almost like a chant.
The Mentmore Waltz has a more conventional structure and has the feel of a madrigal, something courtly and almost formal except for a vague discordant musical haze at the fringes. It emphasises once more the dream like quality although segues neatly into Croham Hurst, what you might call the first proper song of the album. It’s also where different threads of history and geography merge with a mysticism into a vision or hallucination of Oliver’s own devising. The Hurst in question is a landmark in South Croydon, now a public park the hilltop is quite bare and open in contrast to the wooded slopes. Ancient finds include a barrow and evidence of settlement from the Mesolithic period. The Ollifes and the Leighs were two families of standing from East Wickham area, near London’s Blackheath and it appears their fortunes were combined through marriage. How all of this fits is intriguing, but there is something in the corner of the eye stalking the treeline, although Oliver assures us, “I don’t believe in ghosts,” continuing, “No you’ll never make me that kind of fool.”
Consider Darkness is hymnal, its stately progress enhanced by the heavy well of piano chords and then finally the massed choir of multi-tracked voices. Despite the ominous title the song offers, “Then picture this, the single white light,” suggesting a glimpse of redemptive power is at hand. By contrast The Charcoal Burners is just odd. A discordant scraping and bowing that serves as an interlude and sounds like it comes from the same “room of musical tunes,” or perhaps room of musique concrète that Pink Floyd dived into at the end of Bike. But that too gives up to the return of massed voices again for Millions, another song that lives according to its own rules and seems to embody the idea of isolation in a crowd. The ships in the night imagery is expanded to the swell of the waves.
As if to further blur mythology, Ladybird Ladybird takes from the strange children’s nursery rhyme, while Maryon Park is one of the key locations of Antonioni’s enigmatic film Blow-up. Although the origins of the former might be to do with setting fires to smoke out insects, they are obscured by time and the childish delight in the repetition are subsumed in the line, “The clearest crystal waters of the spring will flow away.” Blow-up meanwhile has another half seem character in the woods but again the story is anything but straightforward and here Oliver uses Mr. Punch sound effects and whispers and links to Pulcinella, the trickster whose black and white harlequin is the balance between life and death.
Asphyxiation is a watery tale and again the central imagery of twigs floating downstream is the passage of time. Which leaves When We Shut Down as the final bow and curtain call and the message is that it’s just a part of the cycle of things. For those left behind there is no choice but to allow for grief and then to just carry on.
The Dead Return has the sound of oars in the water and amongst the bowing and scraping the layered voices pay with time, much as they did at the beginning and we have come full circle.
If you subscribe to Second Language, you’ll get a bonus disc, but for those that don’t it seems hardly fair to review it here. Suffice to say, the subscription will give you an interesting if more oblique companion piece.
[pullquote]There is something very English about this CD, at times it has a Canterbury-esque sound reminiscent of the folkier end of Kevin Ayers work…[/pullquote]There is something very English about this CD, at times it has a Canterbury-esque sound reminiscent of the folkier end of Kevin Ayers work, futher enhanced by Oliver’s voice, which is almost like a more sonorous Robert Wyatt. But more than that, this is a record that intrigues and captivates on all kinds of levels, there is always something happening, either musically or lyrically that sparks a chain of thought, a line of enquiry and discovery, or just simply a sit-back, eyes closed moment of audio bliss. The thoughts keep returning to ghosts on the fringes, ideas of some ancient pagan folklore, or some future society where beliefs have regressed to something more in tune with nature. The release notes reference Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, the plot of which is certainly in keeping with that idea. It’s a book I’ve not read, but n the strength of this CD I think I’m going to have to. I’m sure Oliver will be more than happy to be the source of that inspiration. But for now, it’s time to press play again and return to the dreamstate.
Review by: Simon Holland
Watch Riz Maslen’s poignant video for ‘When We Shut Down’:
Sir Ollife Leigh & Other Ghosts released 28/3/14 via Second Language
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