From their Bandcamp page we learn that Trembling Bells “are Alex Neilson’s song-based group who seek to reanimate the psychic landscapes of Great Britain and relocate them to some vague, mythic land where basic human crises are encountered and conquered.” I take this to mean that Neilson’s and/or Blackwall’s words attempt to reinvigorate the pop song with lyrics worthy of the Romantics, especially with regard to “basic human crises.” Certainly, whoever’s writing these songs has made efforts to avoid clichés and come up with unusual and original (and often humorous) metaphors. Similar to the songs on the Duchess EP released earlier in 2012, the main theme of The Marble Downs is failing relationships and thwarted desires. I really enjoyed the Duchess EP, possibly because the side with Oldham was only four songs. Here we’ve got ten songs, mostly performed in their histrionic folk-prog style, which I find hard to take after only three. It would have been nice to have more variation between songs on side one – some quieter ones, to disrupt the tense atmosphere and give the close or casual listener some relief. I note from their Bandcamp page that Trembling Bells recorded a live album with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy called The Bonnie Bells Of Oxford, but it’s only available as a digital download, no vinyl, more’s the pity. The songs on side one and side two are written by Alex Neilson. There’s no other sides, yes, I know.
I Made A Date (With An Open Vein)… the title brings to mind an image of someone shooting up with a needle but a quick glance through the lyrics leads me to surmise something more dramatic, like suicide. There are two repeated lines throughout the song, sung after every other line, namely, “But rain falls down on everyone,” and “How long shrouded stranger, how long?” The first of these makes me think of that classic line from Oldham’s I See A Darkness album – “death to everyone / Is gonna come,” while the second brings to mind an image of Death with his sickle, namely the “shrouded stranger.” So let’s say the narrator, as played here by Oldham, after announcing the title up front, does something radical like razoring the name of a loved one into his arm, and dies. He makes it “to heaven” but fails to find the love of his life there. He’s brought back down to earth on “meat coloured wings” and sets his sights on revenge with this wonderfully vengeful image—“I would build you an ark and then pray for the rain.” He’s preparing to die “in love” even though he lived “in hate” as it has been plaque-etched on his tombstone. So we have Oldham improvising his vocal phrasings on each line, while Blackwall & her Trembling cohorts sing those two lines quoted above. Oldham’s voice is thin and high on most of the songs here, as is his wont when he’s singing harder and louder than his own material allows. The song opens with wide heavy orchestral tones, psychedelic ringing guitar, and choral voicing from Blackwall, before a thumping rollicking drum beat joins to give the stasis a little momentum. This continues for a minute before Oldham begins his lyric, each line answered by the chorus. The sound is full, chiming, a little wild with all the high voices shifting and warbling hither thither. Brass joins in for the break between verses, giving the whole sound a fanfare-like import. One does wish the song would continue to pick up pace, but instead, as various other instrumental tones come and go in the mix, the song drags just a little, despite its celebratory vocal tones. It’s quite the opener however, destined to grab your ears and shake them open, and the tune is nice, though towards the end of the song, it all sounds a bit too much, too many similar tones crisscrossing, and with the low humming bass, starts to sound like a dirge.
I Can Tell You’re Leaving… the noisy crashloud aesthetic continues into the beginning of this song, before Blackwall and Oldham take off. This is one of those duets where you have male and female voices singing to each other, alternating lines, in the manner of some of those great Tindersticks duets such as “Travelling Light.” Here we’re witness to an argument between lovers who are about to part ways. Both are relatively stoic and hardhearted about it, but he places the blame squarely on her – “You treat me like a child” – while wanting her back, albeit with a sting in his tail, “So bring those English lips back over here / I miss them more with each passing beer.” Meanwhile she just mocks him over and over, “It was a schoolboy’s move / You choked on every bone I threw,” and later, “You’re a prisoner of your own misery.” Occasionally Oldham and Blackwall meet in the middle and sing their lines together, “You used to bring me things / Now you just bring me my own things back.” Once again, there are distinct tempo changes between verse and chorus, a kind of dynamic I’ve never been terribly fond of, and I can’t help thinking it has something to do with the weighty syllabic heft of the lyrics. For example, “Now like Merle Haggard you’ll see the fighting side of me,” is a mouthful, and it seems like a clumsy kind of lyric. Lots of plinky-plonk piano keeps this jaunty and flowing, but once again, the song sounds too ‘progressive’ and when I turn it up loud, instead of sounding better, it just starts to sound messy, the melody too trying, the vocal parts and tempo changes, and instrument changes too abrupt, too show tune.
Ferrari In A Demolition Derby… is less a continuation of the previous song than a prequel. A brassy fanfare opens the song, before string tones and a whining organ tone play softly behind Oldham and Blackwall’s voices. Another lover’s squabble, here a couple reminiscing on a holiday they took together in Venice, only he remembers her as swooning, in love, while she remembers Venice as a “sinking ship.” He laments her capriciousness, her love of money, comparing her love to a butterfly, “mine for a day and then it dies,” – too fragile, while she compares his love to “a velvet glove / Crushing a lupine / Alluring then brutal to all it cannot have.” i.e. he’s too heavy handed, but there’s a neat pun in there. A lupine on the one hand is a plant of the pea family, but as an adjective it means “wolf-like” suggesting his love is rapacious, an image that Oldham has stuck to aggressively throughout his BPB career. Once again, Oldham and Blackwall sing their respective parts, coming together for the chorus, he lamenting the loss of her love as “dust” which he keeps in an “urn.” Meanwhile both agree that the heart is “a Ferrari in a demolition derby,” or it’s like a wave – “when it’s not lost, it’s breaking.” Music-wise, I’m not trying to suggest they haven’t achieved something quite different and unique here, but after playing this album a lot, I find it only ever plateaus out at a certain point, and never continues to improve with time or more plays. I think of an orchestra’s mad conductor waving his baton about left and right, pointing to different players, you over there with the trombone, play! Now you with the recorder! Now you with the accordion! Which, along with saxophones, cello, viola, trumpet, theremin, bells, glock, and double bass, make up just some of the instruments we hear on this album. It’s inventive stuff, perhaps just a little bit kitchen sink in some places. Chamber pop? Militia pop? I do like the Morrissey-like curly vocalising both singers extend to their voices.
Ain’t Nothing Wrong With A Little Longing… opens with more of that psychedelically whining guitar sound, and a funny verse, worth quoting in full: “What would it take to forgive me / For those dead flowers on our anniversary? / It’s just that I didn’t know that / You could have honesty without cruelty,” sings Oldham, pushing his voice through the lyric. Oldham’s male narrator is in the doghouse again (“You looked at me like I was scraped from the killing floor”) but despite her anger the female partner badly wants him back: “My resistance fell easily.” He longs for her clemency, she longs for “gin oblivion” but at the end of the day, they want each other back, hence the chorus, “Ain’t nothing wrong with a little longing.” Oldham finishes the song off with some images of slightly obscure/famous musicians from a bygone era struggling in the wealth of their sadness, but things are different now – we live in a “threadbare age.” The swirly organ tones continue playing a repetitive motif in the background—there’s a shininess to the sound of this record, the same kind of shininess I heard on the “New Trip On The Old Wine” 7 inch these guys released for Record Store Day in 2014, which is a sound aesthetic I’m not fond of at all. Once again, things get noisy towards the end of the song, a fuzzy kind of whine, other vocal effects, high pitched voices warbling like wobbly rubber skyscrapers of sound, but the rhythm all starts to sound a little tired and plodding, as if they’re desperately trying to get a song out of the noise. I don’t know. It’s good stuff; just not as good as they think it is. I’d prefer it a lot jazzier, or a little more spiritualized.
Excursions Into Assonance… was originally a poem by Dorothy Parker, used here for the lyrics of this song. It’s a pretty number (goodbye the loud histrionics of side one) opening with tinkling ivories and Oldham singing softly, the first half of the poem. Blackwall sings the return. Tis a song of loneliness, the poet walking along her beach, or shivering by the fire, using words like “alone” and “desolate.” There is occasional mention of a “you” in the poem, though it could be that “you” is personified loneliness. It’s a heightened kind of forlornness though, which has the poet swearing, “There is no lonelier than I,” and “No loneliness has been but this.” i.e. that feeling that you’re the loneliest person in the world, which causes great bitterness. This kind of thing is more to my liking, and generally I’d say I do prefer the songs on this side of the record more than the four bombastic numbers of side one. The tune is gorgeous, Oldham’s singing smooth and warm. Let’s talk about Blackwall’s soprano for a moment – it’s too ‘cold’ for my tastes, too reminiscent of churches, with a hard masculine tone running underneath it, not at all like the sheer beauty of Dawn McCarthy’s, whose voice works magic with Oldham’s. I think that’s why this album doesn’t work for me – despite what you’ll read in many of the online reviews, their voices never blend here – which may well be the point, given the themes are all bitterness and revenge.
Every time I Close My Eyes (We’re Back There)… where “Excursions” ended in bitterness, this opens with “the bitter taste of morning,” and it’s mainly from the male lover’s perspective – he’s lost his wife, he may have even killed her, but in any case she’s disappeared “ne’er to return / Till the first of never.” That’s a double never though—could it spell hope? Whenever Oldham’s narrator closes his eyes he dreams of her, “back there” in “the bedroom of our new bridal house,” and he remembers how beautiful she was, singing this wonderful phrase, “astoundment at the view [of her].” Unfortunately, according to him, it was written in Proverbs that it was always destined to be this way, that “woman is the rage of man” and then we get some slightly scary lines about “homicidal love” and these images: “the carrion caw of the raven has drowned out the dove / My hands are ever blood soaked for shame of what I’ve done.” This reminds me a little of the Scott Walker song that Tremblings Bells/BPB covered on their first release together, the Duchess EP. The music has returned to a slightly less noisy version of what we heard on side one, but the song’s structure is another of those built around the lyrics, with unusual shifts and dynamic changes. More of that keening whirring guitar tone, which is something else I’m not fond of. Damn, I’m hard to please. That said, on the chorus, Blackwall’s voice is put through an effect that is really pretty, a swoony dreamy tone, that I love. This song goes through too many changes though for me to really get on board with it.
Love Is A Velvet Noose… violin, plonky piano, and a metaphor for all the songs on this album, perhaps, suggesting a kind of love that eventually kills you. I like this song a lot though. It’s got a nice tune: clear singing, a mournful pretty melody on the chorus that pulls at your heartstrings: “Ooohh, love is a velvet noose.” The Oldham narrator is the one with his head in the gallows (yet again), drinking himself to death on “Johnny Walker Red.” Meanwhile Blackwall’s character’s compassion is such that despite promising to “be there … each time you fall” she “went home with him” while “thinking of you.” No wonder he’s feeling suicidal. Oldham and Blackwall then give us another image of suicide, this time Johnny Ace who shot himself in the head playing Russian roulette. Johnny Ace had already been referenced by Oldham on his song “Let The Wires Ring,” which was the B-side to the “Gezundheit” 7” released in 1995. So love is also like “a rush of blood to the head” when your game of pull-the-trigger-and-hope-for-the-best goes horribly wrong. Oldham imagines himself as a soldier (for the umpteenth time – see the “Am I Not A Weaker Soldier” review), but even that is made fun of by Blackwall, calling him “a hamstrung veteran / In the unmarked trench of my heart.” The singers then move from alternating verses to singing back and forth to each other within lines, and that’s what makes this such an effective song. In the end, Oldham asks to be dressed in “winding sheets” which is a sheet in which a corpse is wrapped for burial.
My Husband’s Got No Courage In Him… is a traditional, here entirely sung by Lavinia Blackwall, in a slightly harsh but strong edgy kind of voice, joined by Oldham, harmonising only on the chorus. According to the Mainly Norfolk website, “this is one of the hidden love songs of Britain, a song collected several times yet never considered fit to print. In it, a wife laments the sexual shortcomings of her husband.” Thus, the ‘courage’ in the title more or less refers to his ability to get a boner. This is frustrating for the wife (who in earlier times was unable to afford a divorce unless she was an aristocrat), especially as her husband is a handsome fellow with “well-shaped leg” who’s “admired wherever he goes.” He can “dance and caper and sing / And do anything that’s fitting for him” – all except that he can’t get it up. Maybe she’s not all that sexy, but not for want of trying: “Every night when I goes to bed / I lie and throw me leg right o’er him / And me hand I clamp between his thighs / But I can’t put any courage in him.” In the end she just wishes him dead. It’s a cool song – that can’t be denied, lyrically provocative, with a dark, ominous kind of tune. The refrain “Oooh, dear-oh” gets repeated between each verse. Lovely.
Riding… is from the first Palace album, There Is No One What Will Take Care Of You, 1993. It also appears on Lost Blues And Other Songs, 1997. It’s been widely acknowledge that this is a song about incest, where Oldham’s male narrator is in love with his sister. Despite breaking God’s law about who he can love, and acknowledging that “I’m long since dead and I live in hell,” he nevertheless chooses to perceive his relationship with sister Lisa as a holy thing, pledging his life to God. Meanwhile, the voice of Big Other admonishes him with this: “Don’t you know that’s sinful, boy.” The original version was a spindly, feeble-sounding, mournful country ballad, though easily one of the best songs from the first Palace album. Reconstituted in 2012 with Trembling Bells it becomes a heavy dirge, a power chord anthem, with a nice electric lead guitar line. I hate to say it, but this is easily my favourite song on the album, and, I even prefer this to Oldham’s original. It’s got power and forward movement, thrust, defiance, fear, nervous tension (from Blackwall’s spooky voice). This sets my teeth on edge. It’s strange and moving, the tune is played up for maximum effect, and we get the best sounding guitar on the album here, and I also like Blackwall’s voice on this song more than anywhere else on the album.
Lord Bless All… is a cover of a song written by Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees, released in 1970. It’s a strange song to end on—I’m not entirely clear what purpose it serves after an album full of lover’s quarrels, but it sounds vaguely hymn-like. The singer asks Lord to “bless all” and “let all be blessed” particularly at night while “London streets are silent.” The theme is vaguely Yuletide, because he sings of “snow filled fens,” “bells … ringing” and “carols singing.” It’s a song of peace I guess, and that’s possibly the point—the quarrels and violence are over, let’s rest. Musically, this fits nicely after “Riding”, a similar vibe, no drums here, a slow grind of organ and electric guitar, while Oldham and Blackwall’s voices combine nicely, though it’s hardly a happy song, which suggests their rendering of it is an ironic one. It grinds itself into the ground. I love it. It’s gets a little wild and unsettling in the denouement, recorder tones, radio dial static, eerie ghostly vocals, high drama, the song builds and builds towards the end, and it’s truly magnificent, vastly superior to Robin Gibb’s version, even a little spiritualized.
Phew. It has taken me three years to get round to writing this review. I don’t know why it took so long, but the album has just never really appealed to me that much. I think the lyrics are great – really interesting, but the music, while tuneful and interesting, sometimes drags the songs down, or it may even be that the lyrics sometimes drag the tunes down. It is a good album, but not one that has ever really captured my heart and ignited in me a desire to play it more than once in a blue moon. Here are links to the two 7″ singles Oldham has released with Trembling Bells. “New Year’s Eve’s The Loneliest Night Of The Year” and “New Trip On The Old Wine.”