Review of Ballads Of The Research Department [12k1068]

The Silent Ballet (.COM)

Whenever I hear The Boats mentioned, I trip back to that George Bernard Shaw line on heartbreak: “Your boats are burned: nothing matters any more. It is the end of happiness and the beginning of peace.” Those hopeful souls among us are keen to emphasize the introduction of a new tranquility, but what about those scorched vessels left behind, bobbing on dark waters with charcoaled sails? While others move on, the sound of Craig Tatersall and Andrew Hargreaves pay tribute to those boats, those collections of ever-warm memories dressed in a skeleton, supposedly adrift and forgotten.

Despite a conceptual shift of sorts, the four-track full-length <i>Ballads Of The Research Department</i> retains that quintessential obeisance to cached emotionalism in the form of experimental pop minimalism. In addition to the classic sound of the Tatersall-Hargreaves duo, the disc features guest work from cellist Danny Norbury and vocalists Christ Stewart and Cuushe. The result of the collaborative effort is a swelling warmth stretched across forty-five minutes of blended ambient acoustics and whispered rhythm.

“The Ballad for Achievement” is an apt opener, as the piece’s first six-and-a-half minutes set the scene for the rest of the album to build on. A deluge of harmonized static imbued with an instrumented choir hum melds quietly into downplayed classical string and key work. The past welcomes this kind of music; it invokes and kindles both a sense of hope and despair, the minor movements causing a shift from one pole to the other. The latter part of the piece shifts dramatically to the darker side. A low, tumbling bass overshadows, and a slowly building, glitchy beat takes the song to its conclusion, punctuated by occasional bells and muddled strings that swirl the piece quietly to its end.

“The Ballad of Failure” acts as an alarm clock to the sleepy, ghostly intro. The pierce of an electric guitar and its reverb is a shock, but it’s quickly replaced by a bigger shock: the vocals of Chris Stewart. It’s not as though they’re out of place on the track – Stewart has a gentle, suppressed voice – but the clarity that he injects into the song takes a bit of getting used to. The warbling, underwater effect applied to his vocals a few minutes in feels more in line with the flow of the album. Five minutes later things dip back into the fuzzy, glowing instrumentation those familiar with The Boats will recognize as home. Gummy tape loops and rolling acoustic drums coalesce and Stewart’s muted lyrics slowly bend back into the mix until everything fades.

Norbury takes the spotlight on “Balled for the Girl on the Moon.” His string work is dark but prominent, placidly joined by melancholic key work. One of the most captivating moments of the album occurs early on in this track as segmented strings, keys, and rhythm converge, quickly strip to near silence as one perceptible unit, and then climb up again from the recesses of sound, led by a decisive piano and acoustic roll. It’s like a recognition that burnt boats still exist; that despite the eagerness to extinguish the past it simply cannot be done and is bound, in some form or another, to blaze back into the present.

Japanese vocalist Cuushe lulls us into the final track, “The Ballad of Indecision.” Her soft, whispered voice oozes over the mix, backed by blips and bleeps, the first distinguished electronic elements of the album. Perhaps it’s the language barrier or her femininity, but something feels more in place with her words than Stewart’s. They, of course, stand apart from the ambient and classical instrumentation, but it’s almost as though her voice is actually being produced by those elements and is not just another layer being mixed in. The piece ends not with reminiscence and recollection, but with contemplation of something new. Norbury’s strings return, but the track transforms into an all-out passage of experimental electronic pop, as Cuushe breathes her la’s an ah’s over shafts of static and distended rhythm. Everything ends with a tick-tick-tick of a dying clock.

Reverting back to my thoughts on burned boats, I think there is a deep lesson here. I’ve played the final five minutes of that last track more times than I care to count in hopes that it would take me back to the past, not somewhere new. For whatever reason, that’s where I want The Boats to take me. Long after my ear buds made my canals throb, I finally realized how silly that notion is. For forty minutes The Boats pay tribute to the past with these ballads. It’s only the last five that veer into the present and future with their optimistic pop sentiment. The irony is that those five minutes will soon become the past and swallow up forty minutes of future rumination. It’s the ultimate narrative and homage to time and memory, like a weird ambient meta-ballad, pardon the pretension. The past will always be with its achievement and failure thanks to sounds like this…it just takes a research department to get there.

-Jonathan Brooks

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