Steve Wilson. On music.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Robert Scott - Ends Run Together (Flying Nun/New Zealand)

Ends Run Together by Robert Scott is a really terrific record. You probably haven’t heard it. You probably won’t, unless I encourage you sufficiently to pursue it. I hope I do.

The third release from New Zealand’s rejuvenated Flying Nun (Bats, Clean, Chills, Verlaines, etc.) imprint, it should be a release that puts the label back in the forefront of indie-rock perception, whether the mechanics of media and distribution allow for that is another thing. The music Robert Scott makes isn’t the issue. It’s there.

Scott has an extensive alternative pedigree. As the on again, off again bassist for the Clean, a Kiwi band with a fractured career trajectory who played the recent Scion Garage Fest in Lawrence (Oct. 2010), but primarily as the main singer-songwriter-guitarist in the Bats. The Bats, given Scott’s restless ways, have recorded intermittently since 1982, taking the decade between 1995 and 2005, for instance, off. Perhaps this contributes to their lack of career momentum, but the deeper truth is that they make music that’s too subtle, whose melancholy and grace is a bit too elusive for a mass audience in any event. It’s great stuff, though. Check out Daddy’s Highway from 1987 or At the National Grid (2005) to hear fine examples of their sound, and to hear how slightly, gradually they’ve morphed from their aesthetic. In a sense they share a jangly, folk-rock sensibility with contemporaries like Robyn Hitchcock, even R.E.M. Their melodic drone was an inspiration to bands like Yo La Tengo and Pavement; there’s something at once listless and forceful about the band’s energy, narcotic and seductive.

Scott’s previous solo work has been curiously dominated by ambient, instrumental tracks. Good listening, but a tease to fans that dig his dour take on pop song. Ends Runs Together brings it all back home. It succeeds at being tremendously varied, while maintaining a brooding, beautiful vision. It’s a vision that suggests both the physical isolation of Scott’s native New Zealand and the cultural isolation of sensitivity. As for that kind of isolation? Well, who feels it knows it, as Jah Bob used to say.

Kicking off with the gleaming folk-rock of “On the Lake,” Scott sets the tone for what’s to come. Strangely reminiscent of Crosby, Stills and Nash’s “Wooden Ships” in its wistful resignation (hey, Koyaanisqatsi time … let’s split), it has a warning, millennial feel (“a promise has been broken; I’m warning the congregation”). Finally, his ambivalence deep, Scott sings “I’ll be out on the lake, receiving those who call,” suggesting welcome and isolation simultaneously. It’s a dark, complex song with a rich, gossamer electro-folk setting that suits the tension of the lyric perfectly. The mid-range crunch has a warm depth – a sound that engineer Dale Cotton does a superb job of bringing to the entire project.

The beautiful track “Carmilla” follows, evoking the delicate sentiments of Nicks Drake and Castro - anomic, pastoral and haunting. Dale Outro’s (Cotton) “space guitar” on the outro lends a Notorious Byrd Brothers feel. On “Days Run Together” you can hear the inspiration that flows back and forth between Scott and fellow traveler Ira Kaplan from Yo La Tengo. Geva Downey and Rainey McMaster lend sweet, sedate harmonies (as they do for much of Ends Run Together). The production has an almost amniotic feel that portends the comforts of the quotidian and the terrors of ennui that underlie it. It’s menace, not release, which “Too Early” suggests, The Clean’s David Kilgour guesting on guitar. Scott sings “I don’t know it we’ll make it out of here” in his fragile and forceful croon, sounding a bit like Steve Kilbey in the next register.

“Messages” is flat out gorgeous. The song and sound recall John Cale’s sumptuous Paris 1919, the song “Half Past France,” particularly. Downey and Rainey lend lovely vocal support; Scott plays all the instruments.

With Peter Hook bass lines and a sound something like Eno’s early solo work, “The Moon Upstairs” is a moody rocker that builds nicely – a pretty, chiming guitar part enters on the second verse. Scott nods Bergman’s way with lines like “cries and whispers go unnoticed.” The looping, plangent guitar soli that prevail on the fade are offset perfectly by Scott’s overdubbed handclaps.

“Greenwood Tree” reminds me of the Beach Boys’ beautiful song “Until I Die.” The theme of cocoon-ish isolation emerging again as the mood turns to despair (“these things they shake us to the ground; these are the days that take us down”). “Born in a Tent,” the only track here to track over four minutes, features the one-man string quartet of Alan Starrett, creating a chamber-pop mood, again featuring lyrics that envision social withdrawal – “Don’t call me later; you know I won’t be here.”

“The Rising Tide” is a dark, driving, minor key rocker, Scott quietly seeking a musical lifeline (“Send me the song for the lifetime that I need”).”Some Other Time” reveals an affinity for Scott’s peers across the way, the Go Betweens, especially circa “Cattle and Cane.” Downey on bone saw (the proto-theremin) and Starrett on accordion contribute to the song’s shaky sensibility. “Daylight,” on the other hand tips a cap to Sonic Youth noise making, albeit in more conventional tuning, Scott’s layerd guitars also suggesting the haunting racket Lennon and Harrison bring to the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.”

“Tuscan Nights” is purely instrumental, a nod to some of Scott’s previous solo work. Here, Scott composes a subtle, cinematic piece that reminds me of Max Richter’s beautiful, episodic instrumental compositions. Ends Run Together winds to a resonant, suitable conclusion with “Terminus.” Scott playing a little Schubert meets Satie piano against turntablisms and vocal layering that arean indirect descendant of the Velvet’s “Murder Mystery.”

As great albums do, even in this age of the “track,” Ends Run Together feels whole, complete. And in this case, transporting. With themes that emphasize isolation and portend something ominous at times, Scott has crafted a program that still reaches out to the listener - through the darkness of the times and the depression that might cloud our minds, to suggest something human, something warmer, something resonant. It’s an accomplishment, and an album, that shouldn’t go uncelebrated. I hope the media types who are sifting through all their megabytes of downloads and stacks of discs (promo and purchased) find the time to truly absorb Ends Run Together. I’ve been absorbing it for weeks now, putting off writing about it for fear I’d not capture its elusive beauty; that I might not persuade you to listen. Finally, I’ve done what I can. Lend Robert Scott your ears (and your time), and he’ll do the rest.

Reverberating: 9.2

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