A Season In Hull, the latest album from The Wave Pictures is an album that by its method of conception imposes a set of limitations and rules upon the musicians performing it, a set of limitations that are not enforced but chosen. The changes in the way modern music is recorded, and vitally the cost of recording, have meant that rarely if ever are bands forced into any form of limitation by technology, but here’s a question, has that improved music? Indeed was it the very limitation and rules forced upon musicians that framed the boundaries for the music they created.
Many bands have set about recording with limitations, self-imposed or otherwise. The early rock’n’roll records were defined not just by the song-writing techniques, or lyrical exploration but by the recording technique of the period. Before rock’n’roll recording was almost deliberately limited, engineers aimed purely to recreate high-fidelity recordings that were delivered to the listener as if they were there live. It was rock’n’roll that cast aside that idea, but still found its sound clipped by the limitations of the techniques available, the only way to get all the sounds; the drums, electric guitars and vocal tracks, onto tape was to deliberately over load microphones which gave the music a certain gritty quality. As music recording techniques evolved music evolved with it, and the old fashioned rock’n’roll sound was inevitably watered down and to an extent replaced by something more nuanced.
Eventually of course against progress comes a reaction, the excess and freedom of prog-rock in many people’s eyes directly resulted in the evolution of punk. The excessive guitar solos and highly technical studio-recordings that characterised the rock music of the 1970s was seen by many as overly bombastic and sentimental. Yearning for something “real” musicians stripped music back to its bare bones and formed the supposedly anarchistic and anti-establishment sound of punk rock, a style of music, somewhat ironically, defined by a fairly strict set of musical rules. Whilst early rock’n’roll recordings had limitations forced upon them by technology, punk made its own rules, giving it some of the primal energy of those early rock recordings and creating music that was both thrilling but somewhat musically regressive. Inevitably, the rules punk prescribed eventually began to loosen and in doing so the likes of New Wave and Post-Punk emerged with nods in the direction of punk, but without the borders that strictly defined what punk sounded like.
We heard a recent 6 Music interview with Field Music, where the brothers Brewis discussed their gradual move away from self-imposed rules into a freer, arguably more enjoyable place. They spoke of their most recent album as their first record that has choruses, and of a relaxing of David’s own rules. Their early albums were recorded with a set of unwritten rules, to not repeat themselves, to not have instruments play the same thing at the same time, and to ensure they sung in their own accents, even if meant they couldn’t comfortably use certain words in their lyrics. This new freedom has resulted in the band most commercially successful album, one that recently crashed into the top forty. By relaxing the rules they’ve found critical acclaim, so perhaps there is no right or wrong way to make music, perhaps Woody Allen was correct when he asserted, “whatever works”.
THE WAVE PICTURES – A SEASON IN HULL
A Season In Hull, the latest record from intimidatingly prolific musical-trio The Wave Pictures is something of a troubling concept to get your head around. The entire album was recorded in a single day, David Tattersall’s birthday to be precise, at Soup Studio in East London. The entire record was played on nothing but acoustic guitars, and recorded on just one microphone. The record is as David puts it, “a one-microphone happy birthday recording.”
You can almost imagine how the conversation went: it sounds like a lot of fun to make sure, but you’re actually going to release the thing you say? You are? And it’s going to only come out on vinyl? Well fair enough chaps. And more than that, you’re going to call it A Season In Hull? When it has nothing to do with Hull? Okay, you’ve lost us there.
It does at first glance read a little like an attempt to see how few copies of a record it’s possible for The Wave Pictures to sell, which might go some way to explaining why it’s coming out on their own Wymeswold Recordings rather than their regular home of Moshi Moshi. For all David’s references to wanting it sound, “mysterious and lively” and hoping to capture the sound of Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys, it all sounds hopelessly unpromising, that is of course until you press play. Inevitably this being The Wave Pictures after all, against all odds this record, for the most part works.
Even more oddly it perhaps doesn’t actually change the band’s sound that much, the trio have always recorded direct to tape, and always recorded quickly with little in the way of overdubs. Even the acoustic shift isn’t entirely new for the band, long term fans of the band will hear hints of their earliest output in these stripped back arrangements. What the shift does more than anything is serve to emphasise different parts of the bands musical arsenal; inevitably it shifts the lyrics into foreground, no bad thing as David is a constantly improving lyricist, mixing oblique imagery with an increasingly nuanced understanding of human interaction, he’s becoming more poetic with every album. As well as emphasising the lyricism, it also shifts the songwriting style, whilst minimalist recordings and acoustic guitars might set folkish alarm bells ringing, it actually shifts the band’s sound closer to the acoustic-blues influences, previously explored on David’s solo output, in fact at times you could be mistaken for thinking this was closer to a David Tattersall and friends record rather than The Wave Pictures per se.
David In A Field Of Pumpkins has shades of Woody Guthrie or early Dylan, whilst the excellent Tropical Fish is somewhere between a campfire sing-along and Lead Belly at his most upbeat. That the record is dedicated to the memory of Alan ‘Blind Owl’ Wilson, famously the main songwriter in Canned Heat, might initially sound surprising, but like David Tattersall, Blind Owl Wilson was a student of the blues. Famously after Son House’s ‘rediscovery’ in the mid-1960’s it was Alan who had to revive House’s memory so that he could recall how to play his own songs. This record like Blind Owl’s solo output is routed in those 1930’s blues recordings, although reinterpreted with the benefit of hindsight.
Lyrically, it really is for the most part fantastic; David’s ability to carve imagery out of the most unlikely source remains unparalleled, take The Pharmacy Cross where, “in market squares around pigeon shit fountains, teenagers make molehills out of perfectly good mountains”. It’s such a perfect description of the lifestyle of those of us who did our growing up not in rough inner cities but quiet market towns, far away from the realities and problems of the greater world. David’s other great skill as a lyricist is his ability to ask us to fill in the gaps, it’s reminiscent of the work of filmmakers the Coen Brothers; they give you snapshots of the story and ask you to fill in the blanks, take the The Coaster In Santa Cruz, he gives us just enough details to work it out, there are, “black and white pictures of a young greek couple” and, “a ticket stubs from the coaster in Santa Cruz”, imagery that lets the listener concoct their own tale, it’s as if we’re contestants on Catchphrase quietly removing squares and unpicking the riddle beneath.
For the most part these are guarded tales. Little in the way of personal detail is given away, but just occasionally that slips and we tap into snapshots of the real songwriter, these morsels of a deeper truth make for some of the albums most impressive moments. Recent single, Slick Black Rivers From The Rain, seems to pitch David against his own memories, and the temptations of a darkness from his past which is at contrast to his current contentedness; “I wanted to stay in the shade of my avocado tree, I wanted to stay with my young family, I wanted you to stay away from me” but for all his desire to stay in his current idyll, he recalls the temptation and excitement of the past, “there never was a kiss like the kiss that you kissed me, there was a blush like the blush that broke out on my face.”
The other stand out moment is as contrasting picture as you could imagine, Thin Lizzy Live And Dangerous, finds David in his loft trying not to escape his everyday life but trying to keep it, the track finds him, “up in the loft Thin Lizzy Live And Dangerous blasting on the stereo, and I love you, you know, I love you, you idiot, and I don’t want you to go away again.” It’s as close to romantic as he’s likely to ever get, but it’s laced with a quiet sadness, a feeling that perhaps his plea will go unheard, perhaps this picture can’t remain unchanged, even if they do share a mutual appreciation for the songwriting talents of Phil Lynott.
We’d be hard pushed to say this an essential Wave Pictures record, there’s moments which sound a tad sloppy and unfinished, but if you’re fan of the band you’ll find plenty to admire, and it’s certainly an interesting if uncommercially viable aside before normal service is resumed with Bread & Honey due later this year. As for the title? Well those more literate than us will have already noted it’s a play on the Alan Rimbaud poem, A Season In Hell, like everything about this record, it does eventually start to make sense.
A Season In Hull is out now via Wymeswold Records. The Wave Pictures are on tour now, click HERE for details.