I was very much impressed by The Self Help Group’s 2013 debut, Not Waving, But Drowning, an album redolent of the sound of 70s Laurel Cayon, their harmonies and melodies evoking Crosby Stills & Nash, America and Fleetwood Mac yet still retaining their roots in English folk. Since then the Brighton based group have added another member, Jamie Fewing on drums (sharing the stool on the album with producer Jamie Freeman) joining bassist Ian Bliszczak, Paddy Keeley on guitar and singers Mark Bruce (who also handles assorted guitars and keyboards) and sisters Clara Wood-Keeley and Sarah Natalie Wood.
Although, a result of extensive live work, the sound is now fuller and more band-driven, the musical nuts and bolts remain, as does the fact that Bruce’s songs are built around strange but true stories, a sort of musical version of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!
The debut included tales of a British PoW stitching the morse code for ‘Fuck Hitler’ into Nazi tapestries and how a cattle rustler’s skin was turned into shoes after his death! Let’s face it, those are hard acts to follow, but the research has turned up trumps again, the Dead Stars title coming from a quote by NASA astronomer Dr. Michelle Thaller (“We are dead stars looking back up at the sky”) explaining how every cell in our bodies connects us to an ancient supernova explosion (as Joni Mitchell presciently said “we are stardust”).
Here, then, is another collection of stories about humanity and our place in the cosmos, with songs that range from the plain eccentric to the heart-wrenching. Representing the former, you get The Box, a gradually sweeping, strings-coated number about a man who mailed himself to Australia so as to be in time for his daughter’s birthday party; Smile Club’s chugging reference to the ‘how to smile’ organizations set up in the 30s by the Hungarian government to counter a spate of suicides supposedly fuelled by a popular song called Gloomy Sunday; and the simple percussion-pattern of Eddie’s House, sung in the persona of a disgruntled dog whose young owner wrote to a famous architect asking them to design a kennel, but essentially about the lack of consultation by those who assume they know what’s best for us.
These stand in stark contrast to the likes of Myrtle Mae, its deceptively lovely three-part harmonies unfolding the account of a millionaire driven mad with grief over their lost child, and Quintland, which, to cello accompaniment, recounts the 1930s story of Canada’s identical Dionne Quintuplets who, as the first to survive infancy, were turned into a money-making government tourist attraction.
Balancing these, there’s the romanticism of the pedal-steel sheened five-and-a half- minute Birds Still Sing, an uplifting song about shared comfort and communion inspired by the book Do The Birds Still Sing In Hell? by Horace Greasley, another PoW, who, having fallen in love with the camp translator, escaped over 200 times to meet her when she was transferred to another site, sneaking back in after their trysts.
There’s three other numbers related to specific figures. As you might surmise, featuring a birdsong sample, Woody’s Song is about Guthrie, his ghost relishing the irony of a triumphant homecoming to the town that “once turned its back on me” when Okemah, Oklahoma rebuilt his boyhood home as a tourist attraction, some 30 years after tearing it down because of his alleged communism.
Featuring a trumpet coda, the dreamily slow swaying The Streak refers to the 1974 Academy Awards co-hosted by David Niven and sung in the voice of Robert Opel, the hippy conceptual artist and gay activist who invaded the stage, stark naked, giving peace signs before running off and recounting how, some years, later, he was shot in the head by a couple of thugs who broke into his studio.
Then there’s the percussion shuffling Luigi’s Waltz (listen below), a reference to Italian artist, architect and industrial designer Luigi Serafini who published the Codex Seraphinianus, an illustrated encyclopedia of an imaginary world written in a cipher alphabet in an imaginary language.
Striking a different note, Tides (which is atmospherically redolent of Matthews Southern Comfort’s version of Woodstock), a song about mankind’s often harmful impact on nature, was inspired by how scientists managed to kill the world’s oldest living marine creature while trying to determine its age
None of this information is contained in the album booklet, however, I having gleaned it from either the press release or Mark himself. There are photos illustrative of some of the stories, but it might have been an idea to include the source material links or at least the lyrics so listeners could do some digging around.
Not that you actually need to know the background to appreciate the songs, the themes are, after all, often universal; it’s enough to just let the gorgeous, sea-referencing xylophone sprinkled Trieste (the bathyscaphe that was the first manned vessel to chart the planet’s deepest oceans) wash over you with its cascading chorus of “if we can’t make this thing work it will change us for the worse, for good”, or get carried along with the choppy rhythm and insistent drumming of Broken Arrow, the title (anyone remember the Christian Slater/John Travolta film?) referring to the nine (at least) thermonuclear near misses to date.
Sometimes dark, sometimes shimmering with light, the band take the lives of others and, in their telling or adaptation, bring insightful, poignant and compassionate observations that touch on what it means to be human, enfolding these in melodies that draw on the very best of classic West Coast Americana. I recommend you apply for membership.
Review by: Mike Davies
Dead Stars is Out Now via Union Music Store
Order it via Amazon