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At the Lost & Found – Marine Research

I saw Marine Research play at the Garage in Highbury, London, in 1999, promoting their one and only album, Songs from the Gulf Stream. They were, along with Joy Zipper, supporting Quasi, who were just about to release Field Studies. It was one of the best gigs I’ve ever been to: total indie-pop heaven.

At the time I didn’t know anything about them, and it was some while before I was able to piece any of the story together (this is pre-internet, remember). The band had its roots in a twee-pop group from Oxford in the 1980s called Talulah Gosh, a sort of English Beat Happening, with the dungarees, hairslides, lollipops and let’s-do-the-show-right-here enthusiasm that has  always been and remains the hallmark of twee-pop bands the world over. However, the affectations and faux-naivety that make, say, Beat Happening’s Calvin Johnson insufferable were strong in the Gosh, too, so they were divisive among music writers and fans. This sort of music always was; as many people were embarrassed by C86 as embraced it.

Talulah Gosh ran its course and in late 1989 the core of the band reconvened, this time calling themselves Heavenly, singer Amelia Fletcher and her colleagues dropping their rather precious stage names (she had been “Marigold”; Turner Prize-winning artist Elizabeth Price was “Pebbles”; Fletcher’s drummer brother Matthew was “Fat Matt”). While still apt to annoy music fans who want overt and easily understood shows of rock’n’roll rebellion, Heavenly demonstrated noticeably improved instrumental abilities, and were no longer the most shambolic live band in Britain. And if their music was still not ambitious for itself in the manner of the Manchester bands of the same era (or a few years later bands like Blur and Suede), the idea that this stuff might appeal to a wider group than anorak-wearing Peel listeners no longer seemed utterly fanciful.

Sadly Heavenly came to an abrupt end after Matthew Fletcher killed himself in 1996. He was only 25. Heavenly decided to call it a day. But they would reform once again, a couple of years later, as Marine Research, and with their new drummer they completed their evolution from indie shambles to surprisingly spiky guitar-pop band.

They only made one record, Sounds from the Gulf Stream, in 1999. It was a low-key, low-stakes kind of record (indie pop released on K Records is low-stakes almost by definition), but it was lyrically darker than Heavenly’s work had been, with a little bit of added aggression and a lot of very adult ambivalence about the world and relationships. Take At the Lost & Found, where’s the singer is caught between affection and disdain for someone she thinks she recognises from her past, and Fletcher imbues the final chorus with something not far from desperation:

I watch your shadow and think
Oh please, oh please
I watch your shadow that talks
And laughs and bleeds
You hunch your shoulders
And I’m weak at knees
At the lost and found

This was grown-up territory that Marine Research were now playing in. Venn Diagram and Chucking Out Time lived in the same place. All three are great, and Sounds from the Gulf Stream was an underappreciated little gem of a record.

Surprisingly for a band who, even in their mature work, were on the naive and childlike end of indie, away from the band they’ve all had suprisingly high-powered careers. Amelia Fletcher (or rather Dr Amelia Fletcher OBE) is a former head economist at the Office of Fair Trading, guitarist Peter Momtchiloff is in the philosophy department of the Oxford University Press, and keyboard player Cathy Rogers was once on TV every week presenting Scrapheap Challenge, before going to the US to present the American version with Henry Rollins (she devised and produced both shows, having previously worked on science shows like Horizon). She later packed in TV entirely and now owns an olive farm with her husband. Talulah Gosh co-vocalist Elizabeth Price (“Pebbles”, remember) won the Turner Prize a few years ago, and was last seen hammering the Tories in the press over cuts in arts funding.

Theirs has been a strange but rather inspiring group of careers.

mr pic

Marine Research, 1999 – Yes, this is the only picture I could find of the band

Recent home-recorded indie soft-of pop

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Almost Here – Unbelievable Truth

Remember when Thom Yorke’s brother had a band?

Andy’s fate – to be the Jimmie Vaughan of angsty UK rock music – didn’t appear to be fun for him (he packed it in after two albums with the Unbelievable Truth), but there are, no doubt, worse fates. There are always worse.*

My relationship with this band and their music is a conflicted one. As a big Radiohead fan, I heard about the Unbelievable Truth earlyish (when Higher than Reason came out – I missed the group’s first release for Shifty Disco and their first single on EMI, Stone) and got all the singles they put out in the run-up to the release of their first album, Almost Here. As an acoustic-guitar-playing wannabe songwriter, I heard in their music a sound that I found inspiring and which I wanted to emulate. I liked the mix of acoustic guitars, organs, vocal harmonies and a rock rhythm section. Nigel Powell, the drummer, played with sticks and obviously came from a background in rock. He wasn’t a brushes-wielding jazzer or a rimshot merchant, and I liked that. Rock drumming was the only kind of drumming I understood. Obviously there are other artists whose music combines these instrumental textures (there’s nothing that UT did on Almost Here that, say The Beatles didn’t do 35 years before on I’ll Be Back), but these guys were the first ones I heard, and I was an early adopter.

So I retain a fondness for them, but for years I didn’t listen to them. At some point, I became aware of the juvenility of Yorke’s lyrics (there are clunkers in nearly every song) and after that I couldn’t listen to the band any more. All I could hear was the bad stuff. That this was unfair goes without saying. Rock music has thrown up many worse lyricists, and anyway, I’m not one of those listeners who respond primarily to lyrics – tunes, chords, rhythms, sonics, lyrics, in that order – and bad lyrics have never seemed a good reason for dismissing a band or song.

But something about Yorke’s overwrought mopiness was hard to forgive. Namely that, as a serious-minded, inward-looking 16-year-old, I hadn’t seen it, had accepted it unquestioningly.

Recent missteps, as has been said by many an intelligent commentator, embarrass us far more than ones made years ago. Now, 17 years (!) after it came out, I can hear Almost Here as a collection of more or less pretty songs, with a standout moment in basically every track. I still like Settle Down and Angel in their entirety; the “You can’t send it along” climax of Solved is suitably rousing; Same Mistakes’ middle eight (“Leave it on the table”, where the harmony vocals are all phased) is a great little passage; Forget About Me sounded much better than I remembered; the middle eight of Stone, where Yorke sings “None of this is harder than knowing about you” again, but the chords change to a minor key, is very cleverly written; and Higher than Reason is still a cracking riff let down by an awful lyric.

What I enjoyed most, though – indeed boggled at – were the mixing and mastering jobs (I am capable, if that’s the headspace I’m in, of listening to and appreciating music purely on that level). Almost Here‘s production was the work of the band’s drummer Nigel Powell, producer and mix engineer Jeremy Wheatley (now a big-name guy) and various second engineers. They did a stellar job.

All records that include as their dominant components acoustic guitars and drummers create an unreality. Don’t get what I mean? Then I invite you to come over to my place with your acoustic guitar, I’ll set up my drum kit, and we’ll play a few tunes together. Except, we won’t, as I won’t be able to hear you. And you won’t be able to hear you either. One ping on the ride cymbal will be all it takes for me to drown you out for a bar or two.

As music listeners we are, consciously or unconsciously, aware of the fictions that are created in the name of art. Engineers use microphones, equalisers, compressors and pan pots to create events that didn’t happen, that couldn’t happen. One of the subtle, but most pervasive, is the placing in fixed and unchanging audibility of an acoustic guitar when the mix is full of other, naturally louder, things, like drums. That delicately picked acoustic guitar intro? Well, if I get my compressor out and do some automated fader moves, it’s just as loud against the vocal (or bass guitar, or snare drum or whatever) as the powerfully strummed acoustic guitar in the chorus!

Actually, the total, fixed and unchanging audibility of every element within a mix is a recentish development in rock mixing. Even in the 1990s, mix topologies reflected reality a little more than that, and Almost Here is a great example. The acoustic guitar picking that leads off Stone and Forget About Me, not to mention the quietly strummed acoustic at the start of Building*, are by today’s standards ludicrously quiet. No major label would let a mix engineer turn in work that the mastering engineer couldn’t easily smash. Wheatley’s mixes were unsmashable, and therefore stayed unsmashed. You couldn’t compress, say, Stone, so that opening guitar was around -12 or -13dBFS without turning the louder sections of the song into something that sounded like Iggy’s remix of Raw Power.

Listened to from the vantage point of 2015, it’s glorious. Unbelievable or otherwise, that’s the truth.

AY
Andy Yorke – Takamine EN10s were everywhere in the late 1990s. I still play one!

*Powell, for instance, ended up playing drums for the reactionary goon Frank Turner.

**The first chord of Building peaks (peaks!) at -32.8dBFS, and that’s in the left channel, where it’s a good 10dB louder than it is on the right. The loud section at the end averages -11.5dBFS. As I say, no one has turned in a mix this dynamic to EMI since.