Mark Fry is best known for his loosely conceptual 1972 debut Dreaming With Alice, recorded when he was just nineteen years old. A precocious mixture of Donovan, Comus and the Incredible String Band, it was sadly neglected – lost down the musical rabbit hole – until a 2006 re-release. Two more albums followed, along with a live collaboration with some famous admirers (including members of Tuung and Mercury Rev).
South Wind, Clear Sky is Fry’s third album since 2008, something of a flurry of activity after three apparently fallow decades. Thematically, it sees him coming full circle. Like that illustrious debut, this also takes inspiration from a work of children’s literature: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s novella The Little Prince. Like Alice, The Little Prince is a book about the importance childhood and the childlike way of thinking. It is also a book whose ideas are presented in a relatively complex and philosophical way. So it is appropriate that Fry’s songwriting has both matured and retained its sense of wonder at the world. The first line of opening track Aeroplanes – ‘Sometimes I dream I’m flying aeroplanes’ – points straight away to this combination of simple childhood longing and a deeper, more complicated yearning for escape.
Musically, the album has none of the witchy acid-folk sound of the 1970s work (which was very much a product of its era). It seems rather to be inspired by artists like Robyn Hitchcock or Kevin Ayers, and Fry is content to let the songs emerge slowly against a backing of strummed acoustic guitar and lightly orchestral chamber-folk. A case in point is Along The Way which builds into a dreamy French horn coda courtesy of Katie Lang, or Leave Me Where I Am, in which the horn is prevalent from the start. The only song to directly namecheck The Little Prince, (and seemingly referencing Saint-Exupéry’s own mysterious disappearance) it radiates both sadness and calm confidence.
Some of the credit for the album’s soft yet cinematic sound must go to producer Guy Fixsen, who has previously worked with Stereolab. The twinkling electric guitar on Little Flashing Light, for example, provides a focal point, while the space and stillness provided on Fall Like A Stone perfectly complement the song’s airy subject matter. The female backing vocals and shuffling percussion of Dials For Home, meanwhile, provide a counterpoint to the general mood of serenity, and the beautiful Long Way Down brings the album to a close on a descending spiral of piano.
These days, Fry is perhaps as well-known for his painting as for his musical output, but the two forms shouldn’t necessarily be considered separately. On South Wind, Clear Sky he has created a set of songs that examine innocence, loneliness, tranquillity and adventure with a painter’s eye for detail and an enviable compositional skill.
Review by: Thomas Blake
Out Now via Second Language. Order it here.