Largely written on a short tour of Italy and recorded at Bristol’s Toybox Studios, Martin Callingham’s Tonight, We All Swim Free is an almost perfectly formed example of the album as a complete artistic statement. Putting himself and his poetic song writing into the spotlight, Martin called on a number of friends and even some new acquaintances to help build the ebb and flow of a gently evocative and quite magical album, which manages to be intimate and luxurious, lo-fi and sumptuously detailed all at once.
Having already established himself as the soft toned voice and principal songsmith of Joyce The Librarian, Martin Callingham has decided that he’s better served under his own name. It’s potentially a bold move, given the acclaim that the erstwhile band quickly accrued, getting good reviews across a wide range of critical sources, not least these pages, where we highlighted the dreamy quality of the music. I had to ask why, and Martin explained, “After the Joyce The Librarian album came out, the other players had fairly full on jobs and other commitments which made it increasingly difficult for us all to get together as a band often enough.” With the acclaim came lots of offers, so the simple, practical expedient was for Martin to take them on himself. Rather than be a band as such, he determined to work with whoever was available for any given event, even if that meant a solo show.
Having chosen this course Martin has also acknowledged that he feels more exposed performing under his own name. There’s perhaps a sense of distance that being in a band creates when you are just one of the players on the stage, even if that role is the lead voice. The CDs artwork is suitably enigmatic and his picture doesn’t appear on the cover. It’s only on the disc itself that Martin’s hand shaping a chord appears, although in truth it could be anyone. That said, for this record, Martin has surrounded himself with some familiar faces, people who he trusts musically, but there are also one or two new recruits, one of whom even came from a classified ad, which perhaps has the side effect of further refreshing Martin’s sound.
The most significant change, however, is probably the decision to record at Toybox Studios, sharing production credits with Ali Chant, the co-owner and architect of the studio set up. Ali has a number of notable names on his CV, including the likes of PJ Harvey, Seasick Steve, Howe Gelb and Giant Sand and also Gruff Rhys and notably Euros Childs, with whom Martin has toured. Martin admits that while recording the Joyce The Librarian material himself in a cheap hired space was what he wanted, the fact that he only owns one good microphone made it something of a technical challenge, which you sense he’s not unhappy to leave behind. It’s impossible to argue as he simply asserts, “Using Toybox and having Ali co-produce has resulted in a much better album, I think.” Tonight We All Swim Free sounds superb.”
Tonight We All Swim Free is a short album, but there are no complaints from me as it’s pure quality from start to finish and you certainly don’t feel short changed. Martin has explained that originally he intended two extra tracks, but felt they compromised the album’s flow. It’s encouraging to hear him talk passionately about his intention for this to be enjoyed as a holistic work, rather than being considered as just a collection of songs. It’s an old-fashioned notion perhaps, but one that fits as there’s a seamless, organic flow to the album, a gentle rising and falling, as Martin’s hushed voice and some extremely elegant playing lock you into a dream state for the duration.
Martin has paired with guitarist Tom Van Eker for a number of years and credits him with a natural gift for finding a complimentary phrase or lick, which is backed up by an obvious chemistry in the way that their two guitars entwine. He’s known cellist Anna Sudwick for almost as long, Anna Kissell, whose sympathetic violin creates a seraphic string section, however, answered a Gumtree ad. She sings as well, so Martin also used this to his advantage. The rest of the core line up for this record is bassist Andy Smith, previously in the Weary Band and drummer Stevie Hawker, with Helen Stanley on piano, trumpet and voice.
Lyrically Martin reminds me a little of Paper Beats Scissors, in that his poetic songs seem to capture a moment, offering a glimpse or a feeling, suggestions rather than stories. They are vignettes rather than complete narratives. On the one hand that opens them up to wild misinterpretation, but on the other, the reverse is true and they are open and free to decipher as you see fit. The title itself is a case in point and the use of the word Swim is both pointed and oblique. Why not go, run or walk? There are odd words and phrases that pop up throughout, adding intrigue and fuelling the overwhelming sense of watery reverie that pervades.
The opening instrumental Rhosgoch can surely only refer to the place in the north of Anglesey that bears that name. Whatever the special significance is, the piece is a beautiful, stately drift and as suggested above, two acoustic guitars weave around each other, while the strings add a luxuriant quality and also the feeling that this could be an instrumental fragment plucked from a Nick Drake album or some other classic recording from the era.
The twin guitars, this time acoustic and electric get the first song Knots off to an effervescent start as the drums, bass and strings build the urgency, Martin’s almost whispered voice offers the first clues to our need for escape, as he sings, “Snug in the arms of a crushing calm.” Perhaps in that, there is the contradiction of being too comfortable, either indolent or simply uninspired. Encouraging you to follow the swimming metaphor are rhymes like, “The pull of the brook,” and the curiously melodious, “A worm iffy hook.” But then the trumpet joins in for a sumptuous mid section and the rhythmic patter builds a twisting spiral to an exquisite resolution as the calm returns again.
References to water even crop up in Hare On The Hill and Portland Square, both of which also suggest Martin’s adopted home-town of Bristol. In the former, the second verse offers, “Anchoring eyes, Tracing a line through rough water, Pitiless seas,” before charting a leisurely course, “To a Kingsdown taproom,” as the piano and strings hold you in their sway and a meandering guitar line guides the tiller. In Portland Square, which is where Toybox studio can be found, Martin sings, “The coastal road to which your thinking strays, invades in waves.” The snaking guitar line, cymbal splashes and muted patter of drums and almost Morricone finale pitch this song sonically somewhere between Swordfishtrombones and the Moulettes, if you can image such a place.
Gliding contrasts a tight, repeated guitar riff with some expansive piano and a second guitar that wanders around the periphery of the song and a backing chorus of “Ooohs.” It gives way to the short instrumental Ken, which includes a background of chatter over another graceful guitar line, before Build Us A Path, picks up with a brightly syncopated dance. It’s actually one of the simplest arrangements, just guitars, brushed drums and a vocal duet with Gareth Bonello, but it also contains the line from which the album derives its title. Gareth, who performs as The Gentle Good, and Martin are close and have toured together, taking the stage together for Martin’s set. It was during their run of dates last April, in Germany that this duet first took shape and worked so well, that Martin felt it had to be included here.
That same feel of minimalism carries through into On Your Mark, which is drenched in cavernous reverb, however, curiously propelling Fleetwood Mac’s Albatross to the front of my thinking. Again the lyrics reference tides, but also the sand that they have at their mercy, as the simple arrangement washes back and forth. By contrast Folding is a solemn waltz and a chance for the strings to take a stately lead, that gradually loosens up with Sas Payne adding some trilling flute to the courtly progress of the melody. The enchantment holds through the closing Tides Return, with guitars, strings and harmonies creating something that is both intimate and lush and a beautiful closing statement, with another probable nod to Bristol in the line “From the croft to the docks,” suggesting Stokes Croft.
The gentle ebb and flow of this record is like the washing of the tide as you drift in dingy close to the shore, perhaps trailing a lazy finger in the water, lost in dreams with the sense of the songs shimmering in the haze of sunlight glinting on the ever changing surface of the water. Beautifully recorded and lovingly created, it’s exactly what an album should be.
Review by: Simon Holland
Tonight, We All Swim Free is released on 16th February 2015 via Folkwit Records