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Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Reviews: Cutleri and Marley Butler

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Cutleri - Let Me Show You My Sweater (folk/ Americana)
self released, 2011, DD album, 33m 55s, $free

Production standards for self released music have become so generically polished and exact, that it has almost ceased to be meaningful or valuable to release a well recorded album. I’m being facetious, obviously, and of course I like to hear music I like sounding good, but sometimes the slickness of everything becomes incredibly desolate; some noise, some artifacts, and the boxy sound of cheaper equipment can serve as a welcome reminder that a recording embodies something real. Recordings are artistic constructions, and it’s a fallacy to think they represent an impression of something else, but sometimes their impact rests on the sensation that they do.
I’m not accusing Cutleri of recording badly, deliberately or otherwise, and nor am I suggesting they’ve taken a self-consciously constructivist approach to making this album. It’s very simply a collection of demos and live recordings, assembled with minimal (if any) mastering and made available for free in advance of their forthcoming debut. But the fact that it is full of noises off, hisses and crackles, uncontrollable giggling and general tomfoolery paints a far more detailed and revealing portrait of the band than a glossy studio recording might; it may not be an accurate portrait, and it may indeed be a contrived one, but it gives the listener the impression they are genuinely getting to know the band, and they’ll want to believe it, because the impression it gives is so damn’ charming!
The ingredients here (as far as I can make out) are banjo, ukulele, harmonica, three female voices in harmony, and a variety of percussion and wind instruments. The material ranges from the traditional to the bizarre, by way of Broadway: there’s a Brian Jonestown Massacre cover, the eighteenth century song ‘Shady Grove’, ‘Moon River’, a sparse improvisation populated with vocal saxophone impressions (‘Let Me Show You My Sweater’), a song one of the members wrote to sing to her cat (‘Weasel Goose’) and… well, you get the idea.
I expect their upcoming studio release will be more polished and finished: Cutleri are not about to upturn any applecarts with their technical skills, but they are able players with a good command of their instruments’ and voices’ dramatic and expressive potential. They perform their songs with such humour and casual diffidence that it’s obvious a technically polished performance is not their central aim, and nor is entertainment, though they are certainly entertaining. This is music performed for the performers’ pleasure: not in an exclusive way, but with an invitation to the listener to join the party, and you can hear these three women are having so much fun that it’s a party you want to join.

Marley Butler - Procras The Sample (ambient/ electronica)
Naplew Productions, 2011, DD EP, 19m 45s, £free

Marley Butler had something to do; but, he also had a new software sampler he’d downloaded for free. The something didn’t get done: but he did record this EP, which strikes me as some pretty darn constructive procrastination. Each tune was written, recorded and mixed in a single evening, and two of them were embellished by Jamie Osborne, who wrote and recorded vocals under similar time constraints. A third has Butler’s own self-effacing and reflective rhyming.
There is a short coda, a mellow elaboration of some brass samples, before which the three tunes are presented in instrumental and vocal versions. Exactly what Butler’s reasoning is in doing this is unclear, although it pays homage to certain practices involving two sides of a piece of vinyl, and the tunes are short enough that it almost plays like an extended song structure when listening to the EP as a whole.
Taking such a programmatic approach to the working process, rather than tweaking the product endlessly, has not, curiously, made the result sound unfinished or ragged; how much to read into the creative method when listening is moot. Clearly the EP is presented as a record of a process, which in a way gives it more in common with instrumental than other electronic recordings, and in a way it could even be regarded as a live session, or a species of field recording. These things only matter if you know how it was made however; an insight into the making of a work is always an insight into its meaning, but there is little, if anything, in the sound that can be directly ascribed to Butler’s self imposed restraints, and nothing in it to suggest them.
These tunes have a soft and ethereal atmosphere, abetted by the relatively organic drum samples, and they are ambient in the sense of ambient dance music, not in the sense of the stuff that gets filed next to drone, in the imaginary record shop that actually stocks that sort of thing. They are pretty experimental in character nevertheless, with oblique and pleasingly strange lyrics. Sounds are treated much like pigment, and fitted into rhythmic structures that resemble drawn lines, to create something very visual, in a way that puts me more in mind of illustration than painting.
The sound is gently involving, intriguing and thought provoking, and shows a great deal of creativity. More than that though, it shows a real clarity of artistic vision, in identifying the potential of his process, and having the conviction to carry it through and share what it generates. Butler has a very interesting compositional voice, and a sophisticated approach to the business of making art from sounds: I’ll be interested to hear what he comes up with next.

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