It disturbs me no more to find men base, unjust, or selfish than to see apes mischievous, wolves savage, or the vulture ravenous.
What are the vast majority of songs written about? Love? Pain? Sadness? All reasonable answers of course, but when you boil the question down to its most basic level, the vast majority of songs written are about the songwriters themselves. Few things better express humanities obsession with itself better than looking at the music we produce. The most popular songs have almost without exception been about very real, very human emotions.
It’s a much quoted, and largely false, statement that nobody writes political songs any more, but when we look to the future of the planet it’s arguably less political songs we need and more Environmental ones. On his album earlier this year Neil Young asked, “who’s gonna stand up and save the world?” A rare foray of a genuinely huge music star entering into a discussion regarding issues that go beyond just humanity, but to the future of the planet as a whole.
British Sea Power have always been one of the few bands to regularly incorporate an environmental element to their songwriting. From writing love songs to their slowly melting, “favourite foremost coastal Antarctic shelf” on Oh Larsen B, to tackling light pollution on Lights Out For Darker Skies, or simply writing an entire soundtrack for a documentary about the British coastline. Perhaps it’s the influence of the Cumbrian air or the Sussex coast, but in all their work they seem to find ways to incorporate nature in all its beautiful, doomed glory.
As human beings we’re predisposed to be selfish, to worry first about ourselves and second about our environment. That’s just a natural reaction, but as we increasingly become aware of our impact on the planet we inhabit, it becomes our issue, the biggest threat facing us as a species isn’t financial meltdown or terrorist attack; it’s the melting ice caps, desalinated oceans and changing climate. Music as ever has the power to influence society, and perhaps more voices need to be singing about the big picture and less about themselves.
The Leaf Library is guitarist and songwriter Matt Ashton as well as vocalist Kate Gibson, bassist Gareth Jones, and drummer and synth enthusiast Lewis Young. Their album also has a mightily impressive supporting cast featuring cameos from (deep breath) Steven James Adams, Rob Smoughton from Hot Chip, Alison Cotton and Mark Nicholas from The Left Outsides, Daniel Fordham and David Stewart from The Drink, as well as Alasdair Maclean from The Clientele and Amor de Dias.
Whilst early The Leaf Library recordings were buzzing art-pop with hints of Stereolab or Neu, on latest endeavour, Daylight Versions they seem to have channelled a more organic, and drone based approach. Liberal use of loops and cyclical musical phrases make for hypnotic sketches of the twilight hours. At times they sound like a lighter version of the signature krautrock drums and droning organ sound of Hookworms, whilst other tracks recall the expansive pastoral rock of British Sea Power or the lightly jazzy experimentation of Do Make Say Think.
Whilst now based out of London, The Leaf Library started off in Reading. Apart from a tiny, little festival you probably haven’t heard of, Reading is famous for being the site of Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment and Jane Austen’s boarding school. Noteworthy Readingensians include Ricky Gervais, Sam Mendes and Kate Winslett;, their famous musical son and daughters are a little thinner on the ground, although Neil Halstead of Slowdive, Grammy-winning electronic musician Stuart Price and Irwin Sparkes, singer with The Hoosiers, are all from the town.
The Leaf Library formed as long ago as 2004 following the demise of Matt’s old band Saloon. They’ve taken their time though, and following singles on Dutch label The Hooter Listens and French label Beko, as well as a compilation of their early recordings, they’re only now getting around to their debut proper. Daylight Versions came out at the end of October on London based wiaiwya.
Probably the most impressive aspect of Daylight Versions, The Leaf Library’s latest album, is the sheer ambition of the thing. Whilst we’re used to independent releases taking on a slightly DIY and almost minimal approach, this is a record that is hugely ambitious and seems to have cut not a single corner. It’s resplendent with horns, strings, woodwind, whilst the voices seem to come together as a rich choral ensemble. Part of this ambition comes from their approach to the recording; discussing the project the band have explained how they recruited a vast array of friends and collaborators, and gave them minimal direction, instead encouraging them to play with as much freedom and spontaneity as possible. This is a record that is laced with the sound of chance discoveries and fortuitous musical experimentation.
Lyrically, the record embraces the influence of nature. There’s regular references to the coast, weather, the passing of the seasons; whether it’s the coast where the, “seas turned white by October light” on Pushing/Swimming or the frost mornings of Slow Spring where, “the silver leaves of morning cover the avenue.” They seem to find personal details and tie them into a natural setting, and whilst they’re arguably too reliant on metaphor, there’s something beautiful in the natural wonders they detail.
Daylight Versions is a gorgeously produced record. The tracks are laced with warm, hazy drones, and gorgeous, light, harmonious vocal harmonies, but they’re also punctuated through with a superb array of intriguing ideas. On their latest single, Asleep Between Stations, the detail is the fascinating use of saxophone to add a textural drone, apparently inspired by Colin Stetson’s work with Arcade Fire. Pushing/Swimming starts off as a languid haze of burbling synths and droning organs, before a stunning, rapidly arpeggiated keyboard adds an urgent intensity, and at the end there’s what sounds like a clarinet, adding yet another layer of droning texture, but also a human touch.
It’s an album that hangs together beautifully as a singular whole, a piece of work that is far more than the sum of its parts. The album’s forty-six minute run time seems to fly by in a delightful haze, only after repeated listens do the album’s beautiful stand outs leap out at the listener; be it Tilting that sounds like a daydream, an attempt to capture the joys of Spring, or Rings Of Saturn, their lightly jazzy and almost post-rock tribute to the disappearing coastlines of Sussex and the lunar-like landscapes of Orford Ness. It’s quite simply an ambitious, fully-realised and beautiful record, and as intriguing as anything you’ll hear all year.
An album about the eccentricities of living in rural Britain, coastal erosion and nuclear power plants, set to a soundtrack of drone-pop, pastoral-indie and jazzy post-rock. We can’t lie, that doesn’t exactly scream accessible or mainstream crossover, but nobody said it had to be easy!
Daylight Versions is out October 30th via wiaiwya (Where It’s At Is Where You Are). The Leaf Library play The Lexington in London, November 22nd.