The new album The Shape Of Things To Come by The Left Outsides finds the duo of Mark Nicholas (guitar, vocals) and Alison Cotton (viola, vocals) augmenting their more usual stripped-down live sound to produce a record which realises the potential of their songwriting to good effect. The decision to draft in Martin Noble (British Sea Power) and Graham Sutton (Bark Psychosis) to assist in engineering and mixing duties has paid off handsomely in this atmospheric collection of thirteen songs which are influenced by the duo’s love of a range of classic 1960s music, as well as drawing on elements of folk noir and post-industrial alt/indie to create a unique and contemporary-sounding fusion.
The uptempo ‘The Third Light’ opens the proceedings with a flourish. Wearing a look of determination and a wry smile on its unshaven face, it could almost be an outtake from a lost Sergio Leone film. Rattling drums and an impatient walking bass, punctuated by reverbed electric guitar, nevertheless allow Mark’s smoothly keening vocals plenty of space while Alison’s sweet multitracked harmonies and edgy viola add dramatic timbres.
‘To Where Your Footsteps Led’ is an almost Gothic ballad which draws on the best of the early 1970s psych-folk tradition (the seminal On the Shore by Trees comes to mind). Alison takes lead vocals over a steady guitar and bass rhythm interspersed with machine gun snares and some atmospheric synth ripples and tinkles, against which the predominantly wordless harmonies conjure up images of moonlit nights on the balcony of Genesis’ Trespass album cover.
The murder ballad ‘Ring Out The Bells’ is the album’s highlight for me, I think primarily because of the song’s structure. There’s a YouTube video of a recent live performance featuring just Mark and Alison which hints at its potential, but there’s a hypnotic power to the studio version here with the full band. Fingerstyle electric guitar and a snare with a cathedral-sized reverb make Mark’s voice sound all the more human. Alison’s viola floats serenely through the back of the mix, but the bridge where she repeats the song’s title against a simply strummed acoustic guitar is genuinely spine-tingling.
‘Fallen By The Wayside’ opens with a harmonium and some handbells before Alison’s vocals call the faithful to a twirling, waltz-time song. The 1960s psych-folk vibe is again to the fore in a pretty tune that reminds me of some of the more pastoral moments of early King Crimson (Alison’s solo in the middle eight in particular has a timbre reminiscent of David Cross’ playing in ‘Exiles’ from Larks’ Tongues In Aspic). The wordless vocals through the latter part of the song are a highlight, bringing a sense of light and adding an appealing airiness to the arrangement; the gradually fading a capella coda is a really nice touch.
It’s followed by ‘Stargazer’, a short instrumental built around Alison’s viola, multi-tracked to resemble a string quartet, before the raucously psychedelic ‘Unopened Letters And Unanswered Calls’ shatters the calm with an arrangement that calls to mind early (Syd Barrett era) Pink Floyd. It’s how ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ might have sounded with Vashti Bunyan singing; it works surprisingly well and is another highlight of the album.
‘Through A Keyhole’ maintains the trippy 1960s vibe: a short, unashamedly poppy tune with a four-square rhythm section underpinning an autoharp and an acoustic guitar that sounds as though it’s been strung with cheesewire. It may not be an overt pastiche but it’s certainly a respectfully tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement to a long-lost, golden era and in a parallel universe wouldn’t have been out of place in Can’s Ethnological Forgery Series of loving recreations of various musics from around the world.
The influence of Syd Barrett shines through ‘Always The Last To Know’; a 6/8 rhythm drives the opening section’s descending riff before the song’s bridge finds it plunging into a rabbit-hole of pastoral acoustic psychedelia, a bubbling bassline under Alison’s dreamy viola and assorted percussive punctuation, before the descending riff returns like a firm but gentle doorman to steer us out, blinking in the bright sunrise after an all-night happening at the UFO Club.
The slow, lengthy ‘Deep Rivers Move In Silence, Shallow Brooks Are Noisy’ offers the chance to stretch out and its dreamy multitracked harmonies channel Simon and Garfunkel at the same time as they encourage the listener to turn off her mind, relax and float downstream. The song is three-quarters played out before its gently swirling river of sound – heavily reverbed guitar, piano, autoharp and lacy percussion – gathers pace and presence towards its thundering waterfall of a coda. Tomorrow may never know, but I thought this was quite a lovely piece.
‘Out Of Time, Out Of Place’ continues the romance with some of the great music of the 1960s while still bringing Mark and Alison’s very 21st century perspective to their sound. The opening section nods briefly to flamenco before a noticeably West Coast feel takes charge of this potentially very radio-friendly tune. My only niggle with it, and it’s a very minor grumble, is that it’s such a short song!
The chugging ‘You Told Your Secrets To The Sea’ shows a distinct Jefferson Airplane influence in its changes, although Alison’s multitracked harmonies and Martin’s guitar are firmly placed in a more recent psych-folk vein. It’s followed in short order by ‘Stargazer (Reprise)’ which revisits the earlier instrumental and sprinkles it with additional electronica to create an almost ambient piece which wouldn’t be out of place on a Brian Eno album circa Discreet Music.
The album draws to a close with midtempo ‘The Shape Of Things To Come’ (no relation to The Yardbirds song) this time with Mark handling the lead vocals while Alison’s viola slips and slides behind the jangly guitars and huge-sounding drums. Despite its major key changes it’s a reflective piece; the backward guitars at its end fit well and somehow make an appropriate note on which to end.
The Left Outsides have crafted an impressive synthesis of sound in The Shape Of Things To Come. Although the band wear their love of 1960s psychedelia/folk/pop/rock on their sleeve, they have a strong enough sense of self-identity to create music which may well have deep roots in the past, but is firmly grounded in the present and forward-looking enough to suggest that it will sound fresh for a long time to come.
Review by: Helen Gregory
The Shape Of Things To Come is out now.
Order it via Bandcamp here: https://dawnbird.bandcamp.com/album/the-shape-of-things-to-come
As previously mentioned The Left Outsides also play Terrascope’s Anniversary Gig at The Lexington on Sunday 2nd August 2015 (links below). It also features, The Bevis Frond and Malcolm Morley from 1970s legends Help Yourself and Man. (ticket link)