The first track on Seamus Cater‘s latest record, ‘The Three Things You Can Hear‘, introduces such a unique and singular sound that, paradoxically, the listener’s first instinct is to go searching for comparisons and precedents. It’s a tough job. Sure, there are elements of Ivor Cutler in there, but where Cutler’s idiosyncratic musical style seems invented as an accessory to the main attraction – those wonderfully surreal vignettes – in Cater’s work the music is tied to the voice, and to the content of the lyrics, in a way that is natural, organic and inseparable. There is an aftertaste of Arthur Russell here too, and a hint of atonality that recalls Nico’s work with John Cale, or indeed some of Cale’s more challenging solo work. But none of those comparisons really nails it. There is a narrative element to Cater’s record that becomes more apparent – and more engrossing – the more you hear it.
That first song – Crabb 9807 – documents the rescue of a 1941 concertina from junk shop obscurity in Amsterdam, and the slow rehabilitation of that instrument until it was in a state where it could be played on – you guessed it – this album. The ultimate example of the twin narratives of music and lyrics binding together.
Cater plays it anything but straight – this is not a folk album in any, at least not in any traditional British sense. The concertina forms a modernistic, sometimes drone-laden bedrock, not unlike Cale’s viola on the first two Velvet Underground albums, and even more like Nico’s wheezing harmonium on The Marble Index. If there is folk music at work here, it is folk of a medieval, Germanic variety. Cater’s vocals straddle the line between singing and spoken word. The style is almost bardic in its ability to relay narrative.
Occasionally, when Cater switches to his Rhodes piano, the arrangements are reminiscent of Radiohead’s more outré offerings, or the more ambient end of post-rock (the first part of The Foreshift in particular) but generally any references to pop music are fleeting and subtle. Like These Very Walls alternates drawn-out, high-pitched concertina notes with the repetitive sound of a saw (and we’re not talking about a musical saw here – this is the actual sound of carpentry). It is not the only song here to concern itself with the ideas of manual creation and repair.
Elsewhere, light plays an important part. Fluorescent sets up a spacious soundscape, as if challenging the assumption that light is a visual rather than an aural phenomenon. Lunora creates a chiaroscuro effect of moonlight and shadows, with Morten Olsen’s bass drum providing a counterpoint to the foreground concertina pulse and atonal metallic tinkling. On Pretty Girls All In A Row, Johnny Chang’s squealing viola provides an avant-garde touch to what may otherwise have been the album’s most traditional moment.
Cater was born in Essex and grew up with English folk music, but his concerns range wider these days. He is based in Amsterdam and has picked his musical acquaintances from the best of the European underground scene. The Three Things You Can Hear is underpinned throughout by the double bass of Cater’s long-term collaborator, Koen Nutters and the experimental twin clarinets of The International Nothing. This all adds up to a truly original record with a cosmopolitan and at times improvisational feel.
The Three Things You Can Hear is Out Now
Order via Bandcamp: https://seamuscater.bandcamp.com/