Glasgow-based darling of the Scottish underground scene Jonnie Common is back, with his second solo album since leaving behind indie-folk project Down the Tiny Steps a few years ago. With Trapped in Amber, he has switched from Manchester label Red Deer Club to Edinburgh’s strangely-named Song, by Toad but he shows no signs of compromising his use of the peculiar noises and samples that litter his quirky creations. Here, he has chosen instead to make them more prominent, while sacrificing much of the guitar that dominated his earlier work. The resulting pieces may not be as instantly accessible as the poppy tunes on 2011’s debut Master of None, but when they arrive, the more infectious sparkling elements leap out, ensuring that the songs become very familiar with only a couple of listens.
Brief, unaccompanied opening track Guesty hints at the wit that is to come: ‘I said I’d put you on the guest list, even though it was a free gig’. However, first full-length piece, the seemingly live-recorded Shark, doesn’t quite prepare for the assault of weird electronica that follows later but draws in the listener for a misleadingly comfortable journey. With Portishead-like beats and throbbing synthesiser pulses giving way to an instantly memorable flute-like melody, the track must have been an easy choice for Lauren Laverne to play when introducing the album to her BBC 6music audience.
Slow, reverberating arpeggios usher in the sadness of Fractal and its observation that ‘We feel all alone in each other’s arms’, while current single, Crumbs, is much more upbeat musically if not lyrically. Any apparent optimism in Jonnie’s work is soon replaced by life’s darker forces, which in turn become confused by his introduction of almost amusing, opposing accompaniment. The melancholy of Better Man gives way to a haunting loop of an African-sounding dialect which becomes quite hypnotic and strangely uplifting on repeated listens.
A second slice of Jonnie’s voicemail is included for the curious (the first being CJW on his debut), this time with EDC treating the listener to a mysterious request for him to ‘pick up the hedgehog’. Normality – or as close as Jonnie gets to it – is briefly restored with the awful sadness of So and So and its mournful solo piano but the contrasting, jabbing saw-tooth rhythm of Just Because quickly returns to now-familiar analogue synthesiser territory. Meanwhile, the rather odd perfection of Binary 101 demonstrates how to hook the listener with a gentle introduction before decaying into a chorus of cartoon-like whizzes, belches and accelerated vocals.
Jonnie Common’s half-sung and often humorous poetry, along with the sped up voices, slices and echoes of musique concrète and electro beats are woven into his compositions with considerable skill. If there is any musical similarity to be drawn, then perhaps it is to the early 1980s electronic experimentation of bands like Eyeless in Gaza. With Trapped in Amber, He has taken sounds that are so bizarre that in isolation could be used by enterprising town councils to scare away feral pigeons. But in his hands, they make ultimately listenable, interesting electronic pop with charm, depth and plenty of surprises.
Review by: Roy Spencer
Out Now via Song, By Toad Records