ALBUM REVIEW: Jack Cheshire – ‘Fractal Future Plays’: a sweeping psych pop set

JACK CHESHIRE is a voyager out in the best traditions of a very British strain of pastorally inflected psychedelia who, by some as-yet unexplained quirk of the space-time continuum, isn’t as yet a leading household name for lovers of beautiful and mysterious, graceful rock; but then, if we investigate some of the theories underpinning his cracking latest album, Fractal Future Plays, which is out this Friday on Loose Tongue, he also actually is, simultaneously, in some other iterative, quantum version of things. Which almost kinda makes it alright.

Still, with an album this much fun, we should maybe have a stab at getting the space-time continua aligned. You with me on this?

For those of you who haven’t yet been made aware of Jack and his oeuvre: he’s been fashioning tunesmithery that straddles the best of indie, lofi, and psych for more than a decade now, beginning with the scarce, self-released Allow It To Come On back in 2007; since when he’s very much charted his own course through a sonic world which kisses on a number of other disparate fellow travellers; there is a little of that Amicus country mansion eerieness of Broadcast in the mix, for example – the antennae twitching that actually, the warm welcome you’ve received hints at other, far weirder states of being bubbling underneath; and that maybe a wrong turn in the orangery will need to some sight you wish you hadn’t beheld. There’s hints of Bowie’s moonage poise, of the great Seventies’ folk songwriters; more.

His last album, three years back, was Black Light Theatre (you can still pick it up on yellow vinyl) and that included fine nuggets of innerspace with a strong melodic sensibility such as “Visitations”, operating in a dream state of percussive Chinoiserie and exotic pop.

And for this latest, as we’ve hinted above, he’s travelling deeper into the eternally cosmic, while still keeping a tight rein on great songcraft.

And while we talk of near-future dystopias and the aesthetics of, it was actually the very real dystopia of right here and now that set Jack’s hare a-coursing.

“I increasingly felt as though I was an extra in an extended episode of Black Mirror. The world was going toxic and strange and it stirred up lots of cerebral sediment for me,” he says.

“There was a sheen of unreality to it that made me realise how complacent I’d been and how naïve I was. I found myself joking with friends; ‘we’ve gone down a dystopian wormhole, it’s not supposed to be like this.’ It made me imagine multiple timelines playing out, fractals of various imagined or lost futures.” I’m sure there’s plenty of resonance in that weird, detached nostalgia for the 2020 that never-was. The gigs, the holidays, the sheer humdrum, quotidian nights out down the local that should’ve been. Were things right.

One further conceptual web for the album came through a classic of modern literature: Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, as he details.

“Vonnegut’s protagonist is abducted by aliens who experience time as a non-linear continuum; everything infinitely occurring simultaneously throughout each respective being’s timeline. Once he spends enough time with them and fully grasps this concept, his perception is permanently altered and he begins to exist in the same way. He subsequently jumps between points in his life in a bewildering blur.

“I think, on one level, Vonnegut is using this as an allegory for trauma and our inability to fully process and move on from seismic things that have shaped our lives. The spectre of them looms wherever we are, and can overtake our current surroundings in an instant. But I also think it’s an interesting take on the passage of time, which is, after all, a human construct.

“I had a dream, no doubt inspired by this, where I was guided by voices down a time corridor and visions of various moments in my life, past present and future, were playing out in infinite loops. It felt utterly real, and I was haunted by it for weeks.

Sometimes when I am halfway between sleep and consciousness, I feel like I’m in touch with disparate moments from my life, different versions of myself; as if time is an accordion that has been completely compressed, and I am floating in every chamber simultaneously.

“In Fractal Future Plays I am trying to channel that. It is an album inspired by time and our journey through it.”

Cripes. Shall we jump in, see where we end up?

Fractal Future Plays begins in a bright fashion with the classic British psych-pop of “Tunnel Vision”. Maybe, Jack’s indicating, that’s what we all employ in order to get through. Selectivity to keep us sane. It embarks on a crisp and twangy riff a la The House of Love circa “The Hedonist” and a lively drum shuffle, over which Jack’s soft lyricism glides, taking us “down down down down” with our “scrambled minds”. It’s effortless, hummable, layered, and develops a deeper melodic counterpoint as it shifts forward that really snares you: another harmony, the building glimmer of synths and distant acid riffing. It’s a very strong statement of opening intent.

Other critics have talked of the Bunnymen in relation to Jack and with “Mystery Train” you can see a little of what they’re saying; there’s space and a musical economy, a guitar shimmering away like Will Sergeant. Jack isn’t pushing quite the arrogance or self-belief of Mac at his abrasively gobby heights, but does absolutely inhabit a song in which he talks of hiding in the “vestibules in your mind” and flies “out across the multiverse / Visions of your blackened earth.” There’s a little distant scent of Hunky Dory in there too, that glide away from the strictures of pop into a wider space, warming the broth – like folk horror, the weird of the cosmic is here with us in our every day, is the sense you get.

“Tiny Hands” is crisp and romantic psych-folk, our Syd reborn with the worldly wise husk of a Lee Hazlewood or Damien Jurado, in which Jack wishes “Love, sweet love, to weave its roots around me” – especially with the “strange wind blowing,. It picks up a meandering guitar, all tone-bright meander as he sings from a galactic perspective of “being a grain of sand, out on the estuary.” There’s beautiful violining and a mysterious feel, as if on a beach by a harvest moon: all beauteous wonder and otherliness.

“Miradors” takes a completely different tack, is almost post-punk in its straight, declamatory, slightly alien lyrical delivery, crisp, almost with that so-British-as-not-to-be enunciation of Ray Davies: “I am the fat controller / Walk the corridors blindly,”, he narrates with an off-kilter crispness. There’s talk of Tic-Tacs, sausage rolls, ghost flats; a kind of completely removed wonder at the absurdities of the everyday you also find in And The Native Hipsters’ “There Goes Concorde Again“. Retrotronica swoops and chatters, squelches and hurtles. It codas in the Tomorrow’s World hauntology of the instrumental “Spectrum”, a bright future promised in the beautiful distorted graininess of the recent past. An acoustic guitar figure trills and underpins some wonderfully pristine vintage synth. If they remade Logan’s Run

… and “Spectrum” itself blurs without pause into the pretty folk of “Tangerine”, in which an early 70s’ Island aesthetic casts out on the subtlest touches of retrotronica, which swell and lift and swing the mesmeric melody in the middle.

We’ve embedded the video for “Widescreen”, the forthcoming single, below; this definitely has that McCulloch thing going on, all deep resonance and a chiming riff that whirls you deeper into a brightly spacey netherworld where Jack sees you, “at your highest point, out across the astral plane / Mind lost in some reverie”. The visuals find him, mirror-visaged, at play in limestone country (is that Malham Cove?). The middle break sees the understated drama of some almost shoegazey fuzz guitar flaming about the woozy synth grandiosity.

We are warned of “learning nothing as the cataclysm looms” by way of introduction to the pretty doom-swing of “Fractal Future Plays”, a miniature 6/8 odyssey into inner space that hums to a close and straight into the guitar harmonics and broken beat of “Blue”, barely controlled feedback snarling away over the rolling rhythm, again only to be seized and caged by a ghostly synth, intent on peeling back our senses in a Boards of Canada space, futurist yet so very born of an English folk melody. Before erupting into a hard-bop jazz odyssey and back through singing drones, of course.

At more than seven minutes, penultimate track “Landscape Dissolving” is very much the centrifugal point around which the album as a whole revolves; and all those lovely elements Jack employs combine here to great effect: that grand, romantic-noir, cracked vocal, his appreciation of eerie tronica, the potency of British psych-folk, the shadowy glory of those British bands of the early Eighties. The guitar riff plays in understudy to Jack’s vocal line, the lyrics obliquely hinting at a chemical romanticism: “Whatever you need / To give into your dreams … the landscape, the landscape, dissolving, dissolving”. It’s got one foot in Ghost Box, another in Porcupine; and that’s a bloody lovely place. It wants you to swoon into its waiting arms, be whirled into a place as much a very British palette of gunmetal grey and forest green as the rainbow of the lysergic. The spirit of Terry Bickers lurks in that high guitar break, creamy and dazzling all at once.

Fractal Future Plays steps out in the tender alt.folk introspection of “Ocean Floor”, fingerpicked strings squeaking lusciously, vocals and arpeggio a little Leonard Cohen, which urges us, “as the church bells chime”, to “spend more hours, you should smell the flowers / You should love with all your body.” It’s a tender ending.

Jack’s latest is no less than lovely. It swims where quite a few tides meet: the eerie and spacey retro atmospheres of Belbury Poly and the like; a great British indie lineage who’s names are perhaps undersung at a very synthpop-obsessed moment in time; folk with that wistful, otherworldly gaze.

Imagine, if you will, say, MGMT if they had spent less time in a brightly acid glimmer and maybe a little more stoned in summer hayfields. It’s not Robert Crumb melting-head psychedelic, like say The Flaming Lips or The Red Krayola; it’s more in a fine line of bands who admit the psych to their blend, admire its cosmic clear sight rather than its sensual flood. Much if it has a song like “The Killing Moon” as a sort of buried deep script; the romance, the seduction, the perfume of the other just behind the flimsiest curtain.

Jack Cheshire’s Fractal Future Plays will be released by Loose Tongue on digital download, highly limited CD, and limited tangerine vinyl this Friday, November 27th; order yours here.

Follow Jack at his website, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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