by Ian Mann
July 09, 2020
The music and lyrics are extraordinarily evocative, and once again the musicians all perform superbly throughout, complementing leader Andrew Plummer’s voice and words with great skill and acumen.
World Sanguine Report
Andrew Plummer- vocals, guitar, James Allsopp – baritone sax, bass clarinet, whistling, Alex Bonney – trumpet, Matthew Bourne – Rhodes, synth, piano, Ruth Goller – electric bass, vocals,
Tom Greenhalgh – drums
Seaming To – guest vocalist
Alex Balfour, Roberto Iannandrea, Ailie Plummer – chorus, handclaps
“Skeleton Blush” is the long awaited second album by World Sanguine Report, the sextet led by guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Andrew Plummer.
It represents the follow up to 2009’s powerful release “Third One Rises”, reviewed here;
“Skeleton Blush” was actually recorded in 2012 but has only just secured a release “emerging like something long gestating in the drainage systems beneath the city’s streets” as the press release so graphically puts it. It appears on the London based Limited Noise label, dedicated to Plummer’s output.
Not that Plummer has been exactly idle in the interim, as he has honed his guitar skills to front the apocalyptic power trio Snack Family, accompanied by Allsopp and Greenhalgh, producing three EPs and a full length album in the process.
I saw this line up perform live as part of an intriguing double bill with saxophonist Tom Challenger’s group Brass Mask at Servant’s Jazz Quarters in Dalston at the 2014 EFG London Jazz Festival. My account of this exciting and energising experience can be read as part of my Festival coverage here;
I also recall seeing Plummer appearing as a guest vocalist with trumpeter Rory Simmons’ large ensemble Fringe Magnetic at the 2010 Cheltenham Jazz Festival. Plummer has also appeared as a guest vocalist on all three of Fringe Magnetic’s albums and has been part of the bands Bilbao Syndrome (alongside maverick pianist Matthew Bourne) and Minghe Mort, the latter described as a “thrash jazz” outfit. He has also worked in a duo with Allsopp under the name WSR Redux, releasing the EP “Lost In A Dream” in 2018.
Plummer has an extraordinary baritone voice that has been influenced by Captain Beefheart, Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Edgar Broughton and others. In addition to the WSR and Snack Family oeuvres it can also be heard on two early solo albums, “Lady Chanson Lane” (2003) and “Diamond Suicide” (2005), both of which are still available via Limited Noise and the WSR Bandcamp page;
Plummer describes this new recording as being “two act” album that tells a tale of “exile, near-death, love, loss and redemption in the face of overwhelming squalor”. The line up features one change from “Third One Rises” with bassist Dave Kane replaced by Ruth Goller.
The album is said to be;
“Sparked by Paul Lewis, Skeleton Blush is based on Ray Kane’s extended treatment of an unnamed fairy tale by Tom Greenhalgh”
Kane is a Northern Irish writer, artist and film maker whose words “The City flounders in darkness, a naked victim of the enormous belching of over-industrialisation” set the tone for the album’s dystopian lyrical imagery and equally evocative and tortured music. The album is the story of Kane’s protagonist ‘Mister Mister’ who is cast on a “journey deep into the rotten beauty of past love”
The music is complemented by a series of distinctive original artworks by the Cornish illustrator Chris Odgers, which Plummer regards as being essential to the overall work, the aim being to produce an integrated entity, broadly equivalent to the German concept of the “gesamtkunstwerk”.
Musically Plummer has spoken of the influences of artists as diverse as Kurt Weill, Miles Davis, Pere Ubu and Henry Cow in addition to Waits and the other vocalists alluded to previously.
It’s Waits that comes to mind as the album opens with “World With A Moon”, a kind of dystopian drinking song featuring Plummer’s Waitsian growl in an eerie sound-scape evoking visions of urban desolation and with Bonney’s trumpet approximating the sound of “The Last Post”. “It’s a dark, dark place without moonlight” intones Plummer, his gravelly rasp complemented by the sweeter tones of his backing vocalists (Goller at a guess, plus the ‘chorus’). It’s no more comforting during the day, “It’s a cruel, cruel world in sunlight”. The dystopian die is cast.
“Blench” sees the instrumentalists coming to the fore with passages of gnarly, knotty, odd meter jazz punctuating Plummer’s ominous, apocalyptic Waits / Cave style vocalising, his singing again aided by members of the chorus. This time Bonney threatens to sound the last trump but it’s also Bourne’s sinister synths and the bark of Allsopp’s baritone sax that grab the listener’s attention, along with Greenhalgh’s evocative ‘junkyard’ style drums and percussion, his style influenced by Waits albums such as “Swordfishtrombones” and “Raindogs”.
Co-arranged by Allsopp, “No Reason” is less frenetic with Plummer’s world weary Waits style vocals accompanied by the sombre shimmering of an instrumental backdrop inspired by Miles Davis’ “In A Silent Way”. Keyboards, bass clarinet and Plummer’s own guitar combine to create a fragile sound-scape that is the perfect accompaniment to the surprisingly tender vocal. There’s a dark beauty about the piece that recalls some of Waits’ more accessible moments of recent years.
“Disinter” re-introduces Greenhalgh at the kit and finds Plummer sharing the vocals with Seaming To. The pair complement each other well, in the manner of Robert Wyatt with Dagmar Krause in Henry Cow. Musically the piece recalls the Cow crossed with Brecht and Weill, plus all of those other influences.
“Skeleton Blush” itself is a rousing piece of avant rock fuelled by horns, guitars and fluid but powerful rhythms, all complementing Plummer’s threatening vocals.
The mood is carried forward into the instrumental “Aaou” with its duelling horns (trumpet and bass clarinet), ominous guitar twanging and hyperactive drumming.
This in turn segues into the song “Aou”, which slows the tempo but ramps up the sinister atmosphere. The dystopian nature of the lyrics with their images of loneliness and isolation, although written in 2012, now seem like an uncannily accurate prediction of the 2020 Corona Virus lockdown. Subjects such as plague and alienation have always formed a part of Plummer’s vision but here they acquire an additional relevance and resonance thanks to the circumstances prevailing at the time of the album’s eventual release.
The ‘first act’ ends with the instrumental “Ghetto Scuba”, a darkly ambient piece whose eerie synthesised rumblings again evoke a dystopian and desolate urban landscape.
“Act Two” commences with the song “Phosphorescent Darling”, co-written by Plummer and Bourne, which opens with the sound of Bourne’s acoustic piano, subsequently joined by Plummer’s dark, rich baritone voice. This all acoustic sound marks a radical change of approach from all that has gone before. Bourne and Plummer are then joined by Seaming To and the vocalists are again heard in duet, with piano accompaniment only. The result is a kind of art song distinguished by evocative lyrical imagery, much of it inspired by the sea. Bourne plays with great sensitivity and restraint throughout, far removed from some of his more maverick moments as a solo performer.
The full band come back for “God Spat Human Blue Dance” with Bonney’s ebullient trumpeting combining with jerky, lurching, odd meter rhythms and Plummer’s increasingly unhinged vocals, possibly sometimes filtered through a megaphone, Waits style.
“Ladder Laden” is marginally more conventional, sometimes sounding like a kind of demented sea shanty and possessed of a relentless drive that eventually dissipates in a series of disjointed choruses towards the close.
“Drip Driven” features the band at their most powerful and driving, spurring Plummer on to one of his most belligerent vocal performances with the ghost of Captain Beefheart never far away. Allsopp wrestles some astonishing sounds from his baritone and Bonney’s trumpet is an incisive presence throughout, as the impressive Greenhalgh continues to slam out endlessly mutating rhythms.
Greenhalgh continues to impress on the appropriately titled “Doom”, which threatens to summon Armageddon itself. Plummer’s voice booms out of the murk, sometimes accompanied by the ‘chorus’ as the band lay down fragmented rhythms and blood curdling instrumental sounds.
Redemption and resolution come in the form of the penultimate “Together”, with Seaming To again joining Plummer in duet as part of another ethereal “Silent Way” style sound-scape, albeit one punctuated by drum rumbles and jagged shards of instrumental dissonance. The lyrics speak of some form of transcendence;
“Just as night falls into day / together we will stay / Falling / For another / Falling into / Nothing / Falling”.
The album concludes with the instrumental “Waltzer The Flyby”, a kind of bizarre Brechtian waltz from an alternative Berlin, like “Cabaret” meets “Blade Runner”.
When reviewing “Third One Rises” more than a decade ago I concluded that the album was “not for the faint hearted”. That caveat applies to “Skeleton Blush” too but overall I found that I enjoyed this new release more.
“Skeleton Blush” has received positive, if somewhat brief, reviews from both Jazzwise and Wire magazines, and in my opinion rightly so. It strikes me as being a more mature and unified work than its 2009 predecessor and a more consistent realisation of Plummer’s vision. Certainly there’s no sense of the music having dated in the eight years between its recording and its release.
This time round there’s no lyric sheet to pick holes in and I found myself enjoying the album more as a solely audio experience (Odgers’ artwork notwithstanding). The music itself is extraordinarily evocative and once again all the musicians, representing the cream of the London and Leeds jazz scenes, perform superbly throughout, complementing Plummer’s voice and words with great skill and acumen. Seaming To also acquits herself well and brings an extra dimension to the pieces on which she performs.
As for Plummer himself the Waits, Cave and Beefheart comparisons are inevitable but this album finds him creating an increasingly convincing sound-world of his own. Although typically uncompromising “Skeleton Blush” is also arguably a more accessible album than its predecessor.
Waits, Cave and Beefheart fans should find much to enjoy in Plummer’s sound, and with Waits’ most recent album release dating all the way back to 2011 (“Bad As Me”) his followers in particular may relish the opportunity of hearing new music in a broadly similar vein.
“Skeleton Blush” will be officially released on Friday, 10th July 2020.
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