At first, the footage looks like something from an early silent comedy. A man stands on the edge of a building. He is dressed in what appears to be some kind of dark-coloured cloak that extends above his head. He turns to the camera and spreads his arms. His suit reveals itself – wings. Rudimentary gliding wings, like those of a flying squirrel. A couple of confident flaps, then he turns back to the precipice, where for a minute – it feels like longer – he hovers, steeling himself, as the comedy drains from the situation. The weather is cold – you can see the man’s breath in the air, quick puffs like pipe smoke that disappear in seconds. When these breaths are gone, no more will follow. Franz Reichelt jumps. Another camera picks him out as he falls, quicker than you might think possible, his suit billows behind him: a black, occult birdman whose powers have failed him. After his body is removed, officials measure the depth of the crater it made in the ground.
The moment Reichelt jumped to his death from the first platform of the Eiffel Tower in 1912 provides the inspiration for a song that forms the centrepiece of Behind The Glass, the new album by The Fair Rain. The West Midlands seven-piece will be known to many as The Old Dance School, but chose to change their name to mirror the new direction their music is beginning to take. It is a brave move, if not in the league of the Frenchman’s ill-fated jump. As frontman Robin Beatty explains, ‘We thought it was fitting. Just like Franz Reichelt, we’re standing on the precipice.’ Whilst it may seem odd to take guidance from a man whose apparent failure was as public as it was terminal, it must be remembered that Reichelt was only thinking of one thing when he tested out his parachute suit: progress. A failure can be as important as a success, at least in terms of scientific advancement. But fortunately The Fair Rain’s leap of faith is a far more successful one. Mannequin, the song that deals with the affairs of 1912, exemplifies a new lyrical confidence. Beatty first came across the story in Anne Ridler’s poem Free Fall, and the poetic sensibility seems to have rubbed off. And the music too has taken something of a new direction. As in many songs here the production and arrangement forgoes the bells-and-whistles approach you might expect from a seven-strong outfit of musicians for something a little more revealing, a little less obviously ‘folky’.
The same can be said for opening track All We’ve Ever Known. The twin violins of Helen Lancaster and Charlie Heys swoop in and out of the chorus, while the verses make room for Laura Carter’s subtle whistle. Lyrically too, the song explores large themes in the most personal of ways. It is the story of one person’s migration from rural Ireland to Liverpool, but more than that it is the story of the inequality that is the flipside of industrial progress. To Beatty’s credit, his lyrics never moralise. But neither are these songs cold-eyed historical documents. Instead he presents them with a deft clarity and an affecting personality.
Where many of The Old Dance School’s songs began by evoking a sense of place, Beatty’s new tactic is to take a moment in time and populate it with human characters, some well-known, others obscure. The Banks Of Tahiti displays this wonderfully. Beginning with a list of exotic birds – egrets, albatrosses, hornbills, lorikeets – and ending with an inventory of man-made objects like knives, rivets and fairleads, it tells part of the story of the Endeavour’s South Pacific expedition in 1769. Its cleverness derives from the way it juxtaposes these two separate lists before revealing that the iron goods are even more exotic to the native Tahitians than the birds are to the sailors.
Searchlight is perhaps the record’s jauntiest moment, musically at least, played and sung with a lightness of touch that belies its weighty subject matter. But the closing title track is the biggest surprise of all. A pretty, melancholy piano provides the backing for Beatty’s most personal, poetic and minimal song yet. His singing more tender here than anywhere else, and even the martial percussion that kicks in half-way through the song can’t harden its sound. It shows another side of the band, and if it is the culmination of the departure, the first taste of life after Beatty’s ‘precipice’ moment, it points to an exciting future for the band.
The instrumentals are equally impressive, and enable us to see more clearly the link between The Old Dance School and The Fair Rain. Dream Of White Horses is a flighty standoff between strings and brass. In The Hollow Adam Jarvis’s springy, resonant double bass is reminiscent of Danny Thompson, and the fiddles and Aaron Diaz’s trumpet once more dance around each other. While Starlings Gather and Osier are the instrumental core of the album. The former, a graceful fiddle tune by Heys, begins slowly and reveals its grandeur incrementally, like the murmuration its title implies. The latter, by Lancaster, weaves two fiddle tunes into a perfect double helix. The impressively skilled multi-instrumentalist Jim Molyneux is represented by two tunes. Blue Horse, written for his trusty van, is the least folky in character – the rhythm section is almost jazz-rock in its propulsive fluidity. The Watcher is more reflective, written for Molyneux’s grandmother, who still watches barn owls from her Pennine home. In stark contrast to the preceding track, it relies on accordion, strummed acoustic guitar and violin for its gentle, immersive qualities.
Often, a band can record some of its finest work while in a state of transition. And while there is nothing to suggest The Fair Rain won’t continue to evolve (in a seven-piece group, the sheer weight of ideas must make stagnation impossible) it is tempting to think that Behind The Glass is less of a leap into the unknown and more the natural high point of a set of musicians at the peak of their creative powers. It is their most accomplished work to date, and proof of the vital need for change and experimentation, in music as in life.
Review By: Thomas Blake