One of Trembling Bells chief members and/or songwriters is Alex Neilson who Oldham has a longstanding friendship with and who played with him together on the live album Is It The Sea? in 2009. The following year, 2010, Oldham added his voice to a Trembling Bells 7” single called “New Year’s Eve’s The Loneliest Night Of The Year.” Some kind of psychedelic indie aesthetic was set and they decided to pursue a full album. Side A of this 2012 Duchess EP works as a kind of prelude to the album The Marble Downs that Trembling Bells would release with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy later in the same year. On the flipside, an a capella singing group known as Muldoon’s Picnic collaborates with Trembling Bells on four songs.
Duchess… originally written by Scott Walker this song appears on his fifth studio album known as Scott 4. It’s a beautiful slow moving number and this cover version is wonderful, done as a duet between Lavinia Blackwall and Oldham. Their offset voices work some real beauty into the song. It seems to be sung from the point of view of some gigolo-type fellow, addressing his ‘duchess’, though whether she’s a commoner he’s put on a pedestal, or an actual duchess is not clear, but she has kids. The lyrics are highly suggestive and not at all explicit and it becomes difficult to pinpoint quite what has happening or is happening in the song. But there are certain words and phrases which point to something quite disturbing. He sings of the duchess with “her look of loss” which makes him “feel like a thief when you’re bleeding.” Then we get this ambiguous line: “With your shimmering dress it says no, oh it says yes.” I mean…what? Is he about to rape her? At song end, he confesses, “I am lying, she is crying.” And why, in the first verse, would he observe that the woman’s children are “alive and still breathing”? In the chorus he pleads with her to “light up your candles for me,” and “put all your love back in me.” He’s definitely in need of her, referring to himself, I think, as a young man, though he wears his young man’s face as a mask, while the duchess has “shiftless flesh, oh, and … old girl’s grace.” These clues perhaps point to a murder. The music groans and whines beautifully. Blackwall’s voice is gorgeous and high, while dulcet chords shimmer, an orchestral swell lends the song a majestic air apropros of the high-born woman after whom the song is named. Bells tinkle while Oldham’s and Blackwall’s voices entwine, slip apart, circle and swoon together in beautiful melancholy absorption. Spooky stuff.
Too Old To Die Young… so Oldham and Blackwall follow that up with a demented number of their own, only there’s more humour in the songs hereafter, and definitely a theme appearing on this side of the record – something about the brutality of love. Here the male and female narrators sing back and forth to each other, lines about obsessive love to the point where in all conversations, “the subtext was you,” aching memories of sexual passion, and an obsession that turns to jealousy and then to cynicism, especially in the chorus line, “I read it on a toilet wall / Your beauty’s been enjoyed by all.” We wind up at the end of the song Pat Benatar-like where love is a battlefield, the bedroom a slaughterhouse, insults fly and both voices trill, “I’ve been beat black and blue / I’ve been beat black and blue.” A keening descending melody with a rollicking beat gives the song a tumbling momentum, while Oldham and Blackwall take turns singing until the chorus hits. The song almost sounds celebratory with the horns that chime in the refrains just before the chorus. There’s a psychedelic 1967 Beatles quality about the inventive combination of instruments and structures; think “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite” with a more rollicking rhythm section. Freeform horn blowing fills up the instrumental break adding a certain chaos to the simply melody.
I’ll Be Looking Out For Me (and I’ll Be Seeing You)… continues exactly where the previous song left off, though the pace slows to a woozy violin and organ-accordion sound playing a funereal theme, presumably to support the “graveyard smells” in the middle verse. The voices swell together, a strong performance, some whistling over the churning polyphonal organ voices. They sound choral, theatrical, bells tinkle, a dreamy quality, almost a capella like the songs on the other side of the EP if it weren’t for that organ. So here we have a bitter kiss-off that laments, “your thighs are a portal to heaven / But I don’t intend to be going there soon.” Here the egos are bruised and pain prevails in lines of cruel imagery: “You wear your pain like flesh medals round your eyes / A peacock fan of blue and black, a victim’s pride.” Yet, despite the bitterness, there seems to be recognition that this relationship is better off dead: “Willows, lilies, fig and cassis / And other graveyard smells / We’d be married in June ‘neath a red Spanish moon,” that line almost a sigh of relief, and the moon/June rhyme suggesting a cheap fit.
A Tincture Of Tears… and the a capella singing comes full force by the time we get to this song, such that Oldham is only one of many voices warbling and rippling on a high-wire performance. Like a weird Christmas Carol, no instrumentation. It’s a post-divorce remorse song which describes a kiss as “alchemic” and this curious mouthful of a metaphor: “your smile’s a heliolithic God that all men bend before.” The poet wanders England pontificating about beauty (“a nightingale choking on a worm”) and pain, and seems finally to find a positive outlook on the situation: “I’ll sing praise to your imperfect face / And never count on nothing but your fingernails.” Horrible double negative in that last line, annoying because you never know whether to read double negatives in song as literal or assume it’s just a manner of speaking. Anyway, this poet seems pleased to have had the experience of those fingernails at least, noting that he’d “trembled like a Venetian blind” when he remembered her touch.
Bells Of Oxford… so it’s goodbye to Will Oldham and hello Muldoon’s Picnic, an a capella harmony singing group from Glasgow comprising three women and three men, performing here with members of Trembling Bells. This is a simple enough tale of a fellow recounting the story of how he went for a walk in June with his lover in Oxford, but now “she’s gone, she’s gone.” Each verse gives an account of this stroll or what he refers to as “daundering” around Oxford town, always in earshot of the “sound of the bells of Oxford-o” which is the refrain at the end of each quatrain. They even “made Ovidean vows” to the sound of the Oxford bells, which is to suggest sex, he told her stories, they stared at the stars, he put “Long Purples” in her hair, and then they wandered past churches and the home of “Jane Morris”, a famous 19th Century artists’ model, who embodied the ideal of beauty during that time. So there’s a whole bunch of allusions, a bit of ye Olde Englishe, and then an uncomely comedown at the end: “I’ll never speak of stars again / Nor the sound of the bells of Oxford-o.” The brevity of this song and those that follow give them the feel of poems written to be sung by a sextet of voices. Again, my only point of reference is Christmas Carols, especially so given they’re singing about “bells”, though there’s a mix of pagan and religious themes running through these songs.
(There’s Nothing Nobler Than) Yorkshire In October… appears to be a homage to the city of Yorkshire with its “falling golden foliage” and “mighty flowing Humber.” The narrator celebrates his having recently discovered just how wonderful Yorkshire can be in October, possibly through a drunken epiphany. Previously it seems he was something of a drunkard enjoying “warm beer” as he stared into a “glittering abyss,” while considering the sacrifices of a Christ who “contracted the world’s burdens / All from the Virgin’s hips.” But in the final verse he reminds himself that “down in Scarborough Bay … a hundred pagan demi-gods” are drinking “sacramental wine,” which is possibly where he sees himself and decides once more “there’s nothing nobler / Than Yorkshire in October.” The melody to this one is quite special, a sort of haunted autumnal quality. Beautiful. A different voice takes up each verse while the choir comes together on the chorus where the singers each stamp their feet in unison between lines. This has the strongest melody of the songs on side two.
Tuning Fork Of The Earth… but this is the most exquisite. It’s a love song of sorts, sung to a female “you” figure with an “Eden” between her legs and a “palace” for a face. Other positive images such as “sunflowers” which “survive the Scottish winter” enable “the song [to] sing … itself” and each of these things are part of some interplanetary vibration which travels through the object of the narrator’s affections. i.e. “You’re the tuning fork of the earth.” We might interpret this to mean that through her he is able to hear harmony, or that he’s able to make sense of the world. “Vibrate, vibrate, vibrate / All the orbs vibrate.” It’s a rather curious poetic piece alluding to Christianity, philosophy and some kind of new-age bodily molecular alchemy, which, when they all come together suggest the singer is in love. The vocal opens with a sort of ‘round’ style, which lends the song a magical quality, as voices weave in and out and round one another; “vibrate, vibrate, vibrate / All the orbs vibrate” and one becomes aware that it is ‘voice’ through which the vibrations of the earth may be heard. Indeed, “the song it sings itself independent of the singer” and that’s the impression we’re left with here – as if the song had been ‘found’ rather than came to life as a constructed thing.
Dancing On The Breath Of God… is a strange narrative about a fellow who holds his breath so long that a silver circle forms in his throat. He holds this thing in his mouth and what seems to result is “a million gilded angels singing / Within me, without you” – another 1967 Beatles reference there. The vocal lines are longer as if the singers are somehow all holding spinning silver circles in their mouths. The ‘tune’ here is more deflated and melancholy and less memorable, but the imagery is all fantastical and hymn-like. It’s very short, a ditty to the heavens. Everyone ends up “dancing on the breath of God.”
I guess Trembling Bells are making use of certain musical traditions from Scottish folk balladry and other musical lineages from around the the world, styles I’m not familiar with, so for this listener, when I first heard the Duchess EP, my initial reaction was one of mild revulsion. Managed to open my mind after a few listens and the songs began to breathe a true beauty. I prefer the A-side because I do like a bit of music with my lyrics, and I think Oldham and Blackwall have something special emerging from the combination of their voices. Just as well then that they decided to release a full album together a little later in the same year, known as The Marble Downs.