Sunday, November 20, 2011

Cocos Lovers at The Marlowe + Elephant Lands review (finally!)

They tore down the old Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury a couple of years ago (it was a pretty horrible building, so no great loss there), and have recently opened a newly built replacement. I'm not sure what I think about it architecturally (and I'm really not into the glowing purple neon vibe at night!) but I had a chance to look inside yesterday. (The first time I was in the old one, thinking back, was Fairport Convention in autumn '88; the last was Orchestra Baobab almost exactly twenty years later.)

Deal's Private Widdle Social Club cabaret thing is now very much mobile, and came to Canterbury for the first time last Saturday — to the Marlowe. I couldn't quite picture how this would work in a venue of that size, but it turns out they've got a mini-auditorium (seating maybe 200?) in there alongside the massive one — it was in there.

Cocos Lovers played a couple of mini-sets during the proceedings, compered by the comedian Paul Foot (that intentionally awkward, surreal kind of comedy, no obvious punchlines, just kind of leaves you on edge), with contributions from Deal's intentionally unintentionally comic poet Malcolm Head, Will and Natasha's young son Henry beatboxing, and Paul Clifford's unhinged hobo alter-ego Shed (he sang a great song inspired by seeing fish pedicure in a Canterbury High Street shop window a few hours previously..."There's a fish...nibbling at my feet...", as well as "Sam Hall", an old ballad made famous by Johnny Cash: "My name it is Sam Hall, and I hate you one and all, I hate you one and all, DAMN YOUR EYES!"). This made for a rather weird juxtaposition. All the comedy was steeped in that postmodern layered irony, whereas Cocos are just honestly and straightforwardly what they are — nothing postmodern or ironic, refreshingly. "We're still not that funny," confessed Billy as they emerged from the stage door to start their second set.

So, a slightly weird context, but a joy to see them play, as ever. They started with "Bow and Arrow", Natasha playing a bit of musical saw and harmonica for the intro (a promising new development), then a new one (they played this at the Jamboree — in fact Will tells me it was one of the embryonic songs we jammed on the Monday morning after Smugglers Festival). I can't recall the exact order, but they played "Elephant Lands", "Blackened Shores", "Van Rogue" (nice to hear that one back in rotation), "Howling Wind", "Moonlit Sky" and "Father". Also, there was a nice surprise in the second set when Billy swapped his bass with Will for an acoustic guitar and sang his "Barcelona", a powerful song on the new album which I've not heard live before (may have been the first performance?). Dave's playing a new semi-acoustic guitar, sounding superb. So a few clues as to where the current six-piece line-up might be going.

NOW, finally...

I only just got a copy of their recent album Elephant Lands, mainly because Matt Tweed who co-produced it with Paul Clifford had already given me all the final mixes from the sessions. But they'd recorded many more songs than could fit on one album, so I had just assembled my own favourite tracklist and listened to that. Now that I have their selection, in their order, packaged in their choice of artwork, I feel like I should write something about it. (This can't fairly be called a "review", though, as I'm now too close to the band to be objective about anything they do — you can find objectivity here and here, if that's what you're looking for.)

Rather poignant this one, as there's a lot of input on this record from Natasha's sister Pog — she wrote and sang lead on five or six of the fourteen tracks. And she and husband/drummer James have since left the band (this happened once before, and then they rejoined, but apparently this time the decision to leave was final). A lot of these songs were featuring heavily in their live sets during the last year, too, and so now that we may never hear them played live again, it's some consolation to have beautifully crafted studio recordings of them at their best. I'm already missing hearing some of these songs live... "Door to the Andes" was an instant Cocos classic, one of the best they've played, and "Love Is Not Like Roses" (often played alongside their cover of Gillian Welch's "Caleb Mayer") was one of the highlights of their sets from earlier this year. But the band continues to move and evolve. So this album is truly a record — a record of something that was and is no more.

Cocos Lovers 8-piece lineup
back when they were eight...

The album opens with a few seconds of quite industrial sounding weirdness and some elephant-like noises which turn out to be Paul Clifford overblowing his battered trombone in a giant greenhouse near Ash where he lives — I happened to turn up there just as this was being recorded. The same evening saw him drumming on a huge rusty grain hopper with padded mallets while Will clanked giant chains, for the track "Black Douglas". That one didn't make it onto the album, but hopefully will emerge in some other form eventually (I hope so partly because it's a mighty, epic track, but there's also the vested interest that I played a bit of saz on it.)

"Elephant Lands" drifts nicely into "Feral and Wild" (those two songs linked in my mind, as I first heard both when they played The Bowl Inn at Hastingleigh a couple of midwinters ago, after leading the carol singing outside around a brazier in the snow). The latter's got a lovely lazy pace to it, ambling banjo, loping drum beat, and powerful vocal harmonies, naturally. And then we're into "Door to the Andes" with its African choir-like feel, all twinkly Dave guitar and uplifting Nicola flute lines.

Billy wrote two songs for the album sessions, and I'm glad to see my favourite of the two, "Barcelona", included. I had no idea he wrote songs or was so comfortable singing lead. And very glad to hear that played live last night. Having dropped from an 8-piece to a 6-piece, it's good to hear expansion in new directions. Matt's production has included some spacey backwards sounds at beginnings and ends of tracks, even Will whispering mixing instructions at the start of this one. He's also not been afraid to render Dave's guitar in abrasive, snarling Marc Ribot mode at times, which nicely offsets the sweetness of the vocal harmonies and flute.

"Lost Kids" is a Pog song that I was only just getting to know the last few times I saw her with the band. There's almost a swinging 60's pop thing that slips in there, then a pleasantly rocking jam at the end, and finally a mildly chaotic end wreathed in joyous laughter.

Nicola's "Days Are Long", just over a minute of her unaccompanied, layered vocals singing a lament about lost love is just devastatingly beautiful. Oh...

James' drumming will be missed...that's pretty irreplaceable. But at least we have a record!

The final track, "Twilight", another less familiar one to me, fades off into Phil reprising the mantra-like chorus of "Fortuna" on a battered old piano (Matt told me something about going around to someone's granny's house in Deal to record that one).

album artwork

Dave did the artwork again, with Smugglers' friend Lawrence. Intriguing period collage work (the grainy gatefold image of the various band members posing among the rocks of a rainforest waterfall is really quite convincing) — a lot of attention to detail has gone into this whole project. The back cover is particularly nice — a handwritten tracklist in fountain pen on the back of a yellowed old postcard.

Already looking forward to whatever they do next...


Anonymous Silke said...

hi matthew,
cocos lovers were playing on the day last year i left canterbury, so i didn't get the chance to hear them live. but i got the last record "johannes" and i do really enjoy it A LOT!
your description of the new release makes me want to hear it! it's a shame that i can only buy the download and miss the artwork and quality, but i won't do pay pal.
anyway, thanx for posting - i'll check that one out!
greetings from berlin,

8:05 PM  

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