Album review: Cheval Sombre – ‘Days Go By’: Chris Porpora’s second of the year delivers an airy, dreamy space-folk coda


The Breakdown

Chris Porpora describes the pair of records as “two solid bookends, when acquired, one truly lovely journey, complete”; and that with the arrival of Days Go By, “both sides of the story so far [are] joined." Days Go By certainly shines a different light back at its fraternal companion, Time Waits For No One; it approaches its theme of time passing with a lightness and obliquity, easing its way around the chafe of the ticking clock with simplicity, and presenting with what must be a mere millimetre shifts of emphasis more of a gossamer country or psych-folk journey than its darker correspondent of February. My advice? Buy em both. Begin the journey. Amazing, grace.
SONIC CATHEDRAL 8.8

IT’S ONLY his fourth album at all in the catalogue; the second, Mad Love, was almost nine years ago now; but the third, Time Waits For No One, is only three months old. Oh: more importantly, most importantly, Time Waits for No One was also absolutely beautiful. Chris Porpora, the thoughtful architect who guises as Cheval Sombre, is absolutely spoiling us. Maybe we deserve sonic pampering; I think we do.

(If you haven’t caught up with Time Waits for No One yet, by golly you need to; it will absolutely save you. You can read our review of it here; an album of which we noted “Can Time Waits For No One defeat time? No, but it will give you an entirely discrete space outside the depredations and rude entropy that time just loves to enact. It’s an amulet, a perfect prescription; you can use it to ward off the world. Really, do.”)

Days Go By is of a piece, and also not; the same personnel are present (alongside Chris, Pete Kember, aka Sonic Boom; Dean Wareham, of Luna and Galaxie 500); both comprise ten tracks, to include one instrumental and one cover. But the artwork is brighter blue, the blue of bright sun and not of near-dusk; the stylised bird is flying heavenwards, rather than gliding sideways; the title itself seems more accepting, more philosophical. Maybe we’re reading too deeply, searching for signs; but then, Cheval Sombre’s music does that to a brain, invites scrying, addiction, obsession – in the best way. It’s music for the soul, and by god do we need that in these times. Maybe it is a mirror-image album, like William Blake‘s Songs Of Innocence and Songs Of Experience.

Thankfully Chris has been voluble about the twin release, so he can help us unlock it conceptually.

“Having the opportunity to release two full-length albums in the same year doesn’t come around too often,” he says, “so I wanted to go to every length to make it special – meaningful.

“It was a privilege to realise this meticulous level of symmetry – it truly became another vital dimension in the craft of record-making. Around each turn, there was a chance to be incredibly measured and thoughtful, not least with Craig Carry’s artwork.”

And yes, there is a Blakeian correspondence; it’s intended that Days Go By is lighter, airier, and it does correspond to Songs of Innocence and Experience, but in reverse order.

“How wonderful to discover that on the other side of experience, there is an innocence which has endured,” he
says. “Beyond politics, love affairs, worldly woes, even life and death, it’s true – there is a calm after the storm.

“It’s strange, this life – isn’t it? You’ve got all these songs around conceptions of time, it’s over eight years since your last album, you decide to release twin records, and their release dates somehow fall perfectly in line with the unfolding present. When folks say that the stars conspire to make things happen, I tend to believe it.

“Initially, I wanted to do a double album as there were 20 songs – all of which were deeply considered over time against the backdrop of all kinds of places and situations and therefore felt at last essential. But then the idea of two separate LPs emerged – ten songs each, with a meticulous symmetry, twins of a kind.”

He cites another line from Blake as offering a guiding light in how to present his cache of songs – ‘You never know
what is enough unless you know what is more than enough’, which the photographer Peter Beard had developed further with the aphorism: ‘If you crave something new, something original, particularly when they keep saying less is more, remember that I say: too much is really just fine’.

Chris adds: “A prudent minimalism has always appealed to me, but in certain cases there is good reason to go beyond, to flourish.”

So how, to Chris’s mind, do the two albums, twined as they are in symbolism, style, approach, theme, differ?

“There is still darkness, but it feels lighter, more ornate,” he explains.

Days Go By is lighter as a whole, less bound by earthly, sensual concerns – a realm of a very different quality. Clearer,
even. Dramas are left behind and cast aside, and what remains is all that couldn’t be tarnished. There’s a purity in Days Go By, a sense of surrender.

“The artwork is important here, because the lighter colours reflect the music inside. It very much feels like the music is
lighting the path to a brighter future, or at least a way out. The songs on Time Waits For No One recognise time as a horizontal phenomenon, where Days Go By conceives time as vertical. Put together, there is a completion – but I don’t want to say too much. Once folks have them side by side, it all comes together.

“The title continues the overarching theme – time and the passage of time – and it resonates even more after a whole year of lockdown and all those hours spent reflecting, planning, hoping. The title was plucked from the lyrics of the song “Time Waits for No One” – another measure to tie the albums together.

“The phrase ‘days go by’ sounds almost weightless, but there is a crisp, inevitable truth there. I wrote “Time Waits For No One” seven years ago – never could I have envisioned its language suiting a lockdown. But that is one of the fascinating aspects of time – we can never know how the present might be relevant down the line.

“That these songs could be seen as narrating some of what has been unfolding recently is – well of course I’m glad for it. Perhaps thoughtfulness is having a long-awaited moment of resonance – may it continue.

Time Waits For No One is a dark record, already reminiscent of the shadowy days of winter, of the trials of the pandemic. If Days Go By can coincide with the promise of springtime, bringing with it light, lifting spirits – then I know my work has been done.”

Now I don’t doubt Chris’s words for a second, here, having fallen so hard for Time Waits For No One, an album I didn’t know I needed and which moved me on that spiritual level you get from Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space – a record, in other words, that comes around rarely, cuts straight to your heart; a record as weighty as it is brilliant. Yet the proof, as they say, is in the eating. Let’s step inside, now.

Chris Porpora, aka Cheval Sombre, photographed by Joakim Bengtsson

We begin with the Gene Clark-style conditionality of “If It’s You”; ‘if’ being the complexity, the twist. He’s not sure, but he’s more than willing to believe, as we all are. Or should be. And Chris’s vocals and guitar ring with a troubadour’s expressiveness and hush as we gently lower into this second instalment of Cheval Sombre’s chronologically focused world; it has fragility and a naked grace, a willingness to be exactly what it is, unafraid. And then, oh my, the strings. It’s as if one of the more acoustic tracks from The Perfect Prescription had somehow snuck out on Elektra in ’69.

“So Long for This” continues in a similar vein; icicle-bright, that guitar is beautiful as it arpeggiates away, slows, makes way for Chris, his voice all blurry and half (life)-remembered, with that stillness and vibrancy held in a string-drone core.

“Well It’s Hard”, was the announcing single – and you can climb aboard that good ship down at the end there. The time-dusted delicacy of Chris’s breathy vocals, that electronica swirl, the tremolo grace of the guitar; and when the strings and synths swell and bleed over – can there be a dry eye in the house? It’s just a bit of grit, honestly. A sweet musical arrow straight at your chest. Now we’re at cruising height. In a world of complexity, a reminder that beauty, delivered truthfully, delivered simply, still has the power to affect and transport with real power. Wow. For me: 100% another top five song of the year.

“He Was My Gang” fashions itself into being on the tonal swirl of a Sonic Boom synth, which surges and red-lines the dials with intermittent bite as Chris elegises someone who’s passed from his life in some way; again, for me, there’s a line back to the soaring purity of The Byrds traceable herein, a beautiful, lachrymose quality that’s really damn hard to capture. Folk-rock, but post-drone psychedelic folk-rock. We’re told this song is ‘for Matt Wells’; be safe, Matt, wherever you are.

“Give Me Something” presents at the midway point as a simple, campfire lullaby of an instrumental, that trademark bright guitar chiming with a little vibrato – just a little – on the lead guitar in consort. Again, simplicity reveals depths over time; little post-production dubby swirls begin to tail away from that guitar, simple, cyclical poise hooks into your occipital lobe, reveal depths. One day, while driving or reclining or suchlike, you know this will grab you and fully reveal its truths.

“Are You Ready” is a really curious track, loose and floaty; it sounds like maybe it was scrimshawed back to barer elements, the absolute necessaries, after recording, in a Talk Talk economy of style. It has an wide open space at its heart where you might expect its musical core to be, just very occasional licks and stabs of guitar tentatively suggesting the flow of that space. Curlicues of synth drone and vibrato warm the room, some strands backwards masked, with Chris floating free with a delicate chant above. It’s a very lovely, experimental pop.

“Pneumonia Blues” stays spaced and stoned immaculate, a song of illness, a song of flesh and blood fragility (and trust me, if you haven’t had pneumonia, it’s the most sapping thing). As with its predecessor it floats in a psychedelic space, as ethereal as smoke, untethered to our world bar Chris’s voice and subtle guitar, barely discrete from the airy electronics.

“Sunlight In My Room” sees a skeleton of lazy country fleshed with echo and reverb and the universality of a solitary moment, and gives away to another total highlight, “Walking At Night”, breathtakingly timeless, it has the feel of that moment in the Sixties when all bets were off, all the boundaries collapsed, and you were just as likely to hear baroque pop as an brilliantly executed high art form in a supposedly throwaway television theme (yep, I’m thinking Jacky’s “White Horses”) as you were on Pet Sounds. (Actually, Chris, if you’re reading, there’s a cover version we’d love to see …). It exists on all kinds of levels, as much of Cheval Sombre’s oeuvre does; simple, poppy, experimental, hummable, exploratory, leftfield, all at once. And ain’t that a great thing to be? An especial shout out for the wistful string melodies, which seem to hark back to all kind of reference points and remain delicious in the now.

“The Calfless Cow” is the closing cover, taking Alasdair Roberts’ 2007 song from The Amber Gatherers album; the original has that tremulous sorrow of a Scottish folk air centuries old – it’s in part melodically based on the traditional night visiting song “I Must Away, Love”; and while Chris treats it with respect, he reinvents it wholly for his purposes of stillness and contemplation, scrubbing the peat from it and setting it free anew in pastures of lilting piano and electronic wash – it’s oh so brief too, and in conjunction with the preceding “Walking At Night” brings a heretofore buried diurnal structure to the album’s ending; nightfall is here. Tomorrow we begin again. Maybe we should begin back at “If It’s You” at breakfast, let it reveal more? (The Japanese ambient collective UNKNOWN ME’s first mini-album, sunday void, was composed of tracks for particular moments in the day; perhaps that’s an approach for Days Go By? A closing thought.)

Chris describes the pair of records as “two solid bookends, when acquired, one truly lovely journey, complete”; and that with the arrival of Days Go By, “both sides of the story so far [are] joined. Reconciliation. Once we acknowledge these contradictory aspects of our lives, a wholeness emerges.

“My hope is that with the records side by side, a third element might make itself known – less about sense, but something much more elusive, intuitive – a convergence.”

Days Go By certainly shines a different light back at its fraternal companion, Time Waits For No One; it approaches its theme of time passing with a lightness and obliquity, easing its way around the chafe of the ticking clock with simplicity, and presenting with what must be a mere millimetre shifts of emphasis more of a gossamer country or psych-folk journey than its darker correspondent of February with sweet pain in its heart. I think it’s hasn’t revealed its deeper truths to me yet, and sense more of a slow burner that one day very soon is gonna push me back in the chair with the force of melody and recognition. I’m taking it outside now, to listen to in the sun.

As Blake also said, “Without contraries is no progression”; by a strict reading of that, we should go explore that place between the two pillars. Explore how the two relate, diverge; immerse in two very fine soundworlds. You have time; use it wisely. We should be grateful of such alchemists as Blake; and Chris.

My advice? Buy em both. Begin the journey. Amazing, grace.

Cheval Sombre’s Days Go By will be released by Sonic Cathedral digitally, on CD and on vinyl on May 28th; you can pre-order your copy from Sonic Cathedral direct, from Rough Trade, and from Cheval Sombre direct at Bandcamp.

Follow Cheval Sombre on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram.

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