I was lucky enough to be invited to review this album, so in a change to the regular levels of rambling…
LYR are, so we are led to believe, called Land Yacht Regatta by their mum when they are in trouble.
However, as Armitage has it in the band’s biog, “There shouldn’t really be a land yacht regatta! But I liked the idea of something that’s a hybrid. It’s like a 3-way contradiction. We were doing something that’s unusual and perhaps even impossible.” The same biog also states they are “a genre-splicing supergroup of sorts, comprised of author and current British poet laureate Simon Armitage, musician Richard Walters and multi-instrumentalist Patrick Pearson”
And it’s this phrase “genre-splicing supergroup of sorts” that stands out. I wondered when I first heard about this album in February—how long ago does that feel now?— whether an album of poetry read out over “ambient post-rock passages, jazz flourishes, atonal experimentalism, as well as swoony strings and piano — and some more unusual instrument choices too, such as the kora” would truly gel, or knit into something greater than the sum of its parts.
(As an aside, I’m sure there were rumblings in 2019 on a Soundcloud page, but that’s now bare – https://soundcloud.com/lyrbanduk)
There’s a worrying moment at the start of this album, where the band’s lead vocalist—we can’t say singer, although there is a singer present, Simon Armitage intones the following words over what sounds like a Rhodes piano.
‘Gone your own way now, nothing to say now…’ and as he said these word, I had a horrifying vision of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Armitage and his fellow band mates in LYR all stripped to the waist, covered in gold paint somewhere on the moors near Armitage’s beloved Marsden.
Thankfully, he follows it with the half or slant-rhyme of ‘Still mouthing your name though’. That ’though’ does a lot of heavy-lifting there and I was immensely happy to hear it. And, even more thankfully, the music is light year away from that mob.
The music description above is both bang on and also not quite enough.There are moments, for example where it can invoke the sort of post rock made by the likes of Inventions or This Will Destroy You. There are moments when all I could think was the theme tune to The Bridge by Choir of Young Believers. There were others where it could easily be Public Service Broadcasting’s fourth album – the words of a poet drawn from the BBC archives instead of recordings from the NASA archives, or Welsh Miners or BBC broadcasters/Auden reading Night Mail.
There are moments when the sort of classical/dance hybrid similar to the sort of music Ólafur Arnalds makes with Kiasmos, or Erland Cooper’s work is all that springs to mind, for example in Urban Myth #91 (although for some reason I also got a sense of a sort of Glitter Band beat there too as it gathers pace.
However, there are also moments where the likes of The Penguin Cafe Orchestra or Michael Nyman spring to mind, the most obvious of these is the track Product Testing. It initially feels like a throwaway track, or like someone has pressed the demo function on a keyboard as Armitage intones “On/Off”, but it quickly turns into a twitchy dance number, or something like what I imagine the inside of David Byrne’s brain to sound like. At the end of the song we hear Armitage say “Yeah, seems to work” and he’s right. It does.
“The origins of LYR stretch back to 2009 when Walters, a big fan of Armitage’s work, approached the poet’s publisher about the possibility of collaboration. Walters wound up setting Armitage’s poetry to music in his 2011 solo song ‘Redwoods’.
“Simon and I talked about the next step”, recalls Walters. “Instead of just taking words and me singing them, we had the idea of a spoken word project that had a bit more of a life around it in terms of the musical setting”. Walters thought of Pearson, who he had met in the early 2010’s, as part of a short-lived, shoegaze inspired band called Liu Bei. Pearson loved the idea, and LYR were born.”
It’s testament to the skill and musicality of both Walters and Pearson that the music never interrupts the words, but is never just wallpaper or mood lighting. These are not backing tracks or soundbeds, they are not foley artists putting real noises under the lines of the actors. These are songs that could quite easily function as standalone pieces. The question is then, does or could Armitage’s contribution add anything to this three-legged stool?
The band themselves suggest ‘It’s not poetry with music underneath,’” says Pearson of the project. “We’d always talked about it as being a focused band project.” Walters agrees: “It’s definitely a universe, the record,” he says. “There’s so many people on it.” Armitage, with characteristic dry wit, is quick to respond, and jokes: “We might make a Broadway musical!”
It’s interesting that the main vocal line of the final song on the album, Leaves On The Line (we’ll discuss this later) is handed to Waters – does this suggest that Armitage could fade back to writing the words for future albums, or is it just that Waters sounded better on this one? Who knows?
I wanted to talk about the music first in this review, because it could so easily be the Armitage show.
“A lot of the lyrics have come about from writing in a time of post-industrialisation, austerity, and the recession,” explains Armitage. “And yet, even through those years and those atmospheres, there’s still been an exuberance around, an exuberance of communication, information, language. I think a lot of the speakers in the pieces are expressing some kind of marginalisation and are doing so as if they’re almost hyperventilating.”
That marginalisation reaches a sort of zenith, if that’s the right word, at the end of Adam’s Apple after a sequence of three songs that end with Waters singing/repeating “It’s all too much for you” in ‘ the exquisite You Were Never Good With Horses, “move on, move on” in Urban Myth #91 and then “let go, let go” at the end of Adam’s Apple.
Each song is written form the point of view of different characters, Never Good With Horses, for example written from the point of view of some dissatisfied with their partner’s discomfort with the natural world. The partner “comfortable with a steering wheel” and “watching the movie of life layout through the windscreen’s lens”— a nod to Iggy Pop’s The Passenger, perhaps, but they “were never good with horses…my dear, always took a step backwards when they came near. Couldn’t bear to look in the dark rock pools of their eyes”. That last line is when you know you’ve got a poet running the lyrical show.
Having mentioned Iggyy Pop here, there’s a further connection in the form of the excellent 33 1/3 with its lyric which that starts out making you think it’s a hymn to vinyl with references to “captured orbit around the spindle”, but by the second go around we’re talking about “The rope that he swung from/ […] A whirlpooling swansong.” Every repetition of the title towards the end of the song adding more and more weight.
Armitage’s demo of 33 ⅓ was set to a haunting whirr which came from the run-out groove of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures vinyl. “Ian Curtis is definitely invoked on that track,” says Armitage, of the band’s frontman who committed suicide in 1980. Curtis was found hanging with a record player’s needle stuck on the final moments of Iggy Pop’s ‘The Idiot’.
While the majority of these lyrics were written specifically for the album, Armitage has also reached back into his catalogue of poems to bring a couple to life.
Specifically, Zodiac T-Shirt, which he states in the notes to a recent collection of, to use a musical sort of reference’ b-sides and songs that didn’t find a home. I sort of think if it as discs two and three in the boxset version of his more recent full collection, The Unaccompanied. And now I write that there’s a sort of irony to that.
Regardless of that, in the notes of Sandettie Light Vessel Automatic, he writes
So while he never expected it to be sung by him, we still have him intoning the poem. It’s close enough for me. Don’t forget we know he can sing after The Scaremongers, and even heard him attempt beatboxing in a recent episode of his BBC podcast, The Poet Laureate Retires Too His Shed.
It’s not the first time he’s done this, The Scaremongers’ album has him using the poem Old Boy from The Motorway Service Station as a Destination in its Own Right. And there’s the case of him having recorded himself narrating his poem ‘The English’ from Universal Home Doctor for indie veterans The Wedding Present in 2017.
The Wedding Present’s very own David Gedge describes the process
“I’d been aware of Simon’s work for a long time – hearing him on the radio and stuff – but I don’t think I actually met him until he interviewed me for his book ‘Gig : The Life And Times Of A Rock-Star Fantasist’ which came out in 2008. He interviewed me in the dressing room of the Picturedrome venue in Holmfirth, which is near where he lives, and we’ve kept in touch ever since. He’s a lovely bloke.
When we were writing ‘England’ I decided that I wanted some form of narration on there but it was actually Jessica who suggested Simon. I asked him if he’d be interested and, by an amazing coincidence, he told me about his poem ‘The English’ which fits perfectly! It’s brilliant when things fall into place like that…
The other moments from his back catalogue comes in the form of the aforementioned Leaves on the Line and The National Trust Range of Paints Colour Card. As I was reading the track listing, I remember thinking ‘Crikey, The National Trust….is almost the most Simon Armitage title of all time. The I remembered that it is a Simon Armitage poem title, and that both poems are found in his pamphlet, Travelling Songs.
On the back of that he says “Describing yourself as a poet is often seen as a challenge or even an alibi. In those circumstances, it’s worth having a few tunes up for sleeve to prove it” . While he was clearly referring to his poems, it feels like he’s finally got the second album’s worth up there 18 years after Traveling Songs was published.
Call In The Crash Team is available at all good retailers – on and offline – Let’s support our record shops if we can.
Also available at your standard issue streaming services.
Please also note there is an additional single Called Lockdown that sets Simon’s poem to new music, and features Florence Pugh and Melt Yourself Down. Might I suggest you buy it as the proceeds will go towards supporting Refuge
Final thought. It’s only at the end of writing this that I realise LYR is also the first three letter of Lyrics and Lyre. Ooh, maybe for the next album the band can get other folks to join – like Crosby, Stills and Nash did with that Canadian bloke…
UPDATED TO INCLUDE THE USUAL WEEKNOTES
Two titles to giveaway
1. Set Phrases To Stun
2. Link in Bio
Teenage Fanclub – It felt like the kind of week to just play sunshine
Ain’t That Enough
A Catholic Education
Did I Say?
Dumb Dumb Dumb
I Don’t Want Control Of You
I Need Direction
It’s All In My Mind
Songs From Northern Britain
TFC & Jad Fair
Near To You
Words of Hope & Wisdom
Compact Command Performances
Tess Parks – blood Hot
Thao Nguyen – We Brave Bee Stings And All
This is the Kit – Bashed Out
This Will Destroy You – Young Mountain
Throneberry – Sangria
The Apples In Stereo – Just the song 7 Stars on a loop ten times
Bert Jansch – Avocet
Caspian – Live At Church
Charles Mingus – Presents Charles Mingus
LYR – Call In The Crash Team
Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
Grandbrothers – Dilation
Mogwai – Ten Rapid (after being reminded of this clip from Friday Night Lights)
Mojave 3 – Puzzles Like You
Mount Kimbie – Cold Spring Fault Less Youth
Mountain Man – Made The Harbour
Throttle Elevator Music – Emergency Exit
Jenny Beth – To Love Is To live
Richard Walters – Golden Veins
Snowgoose – The Making of You
Caribou – Suddenly
The National – Trouble Will Find Me
My Morning Jacket – At Dawn
Hangouts/Video Calls/Zoom/Etc (not for work)
In Conversations – Nell Nelson & Alan Buckley
Spook S8 E2-6
Rishi Dastidar – Poetry For Sale
Suna Afshan – Bella Donna
Donald Justice – Collected Poems
Naush Sabah – Astynome/Heredity
Rob Selby – The Coming Down Time
Sue Rose – Scion