ALBUM REVIEW: Louis Philippe & The Night Mail – ‘Thunderclouds’: the blessed return of a baroque pop genius

FOOTBALL writer, baroque pop legend, in-house producer, literary collaborator: truly Philippe Auclair – known worldwide to an adoring fanbase as Louis Philippe (for it is, indeed, him) is the sort of erudite, intelligent, popstar we need – especially right now. Populist three-word sloganeer he sure as hell ain’t.

We should be more than grateful then that after what? 13 years away from our ears, too, too long, he’s seen fit to return with not one, but two, albums this year. That’s a very good thing, floating in an ocean of hmmm …. need I say more?

First there was the two-handed recording with long-time collaborator Stuart Moxham, once a Young Marble Giant, The Devil Laughs, in July; but now he has a baker’s dozen of exquisite confections ready in the shape of Thunderclouds, which long player will be out just in time for Santa.

“I have never done a record quite like this before, with a live band in the studio, though I had always wanted to do it,” he says. Which notion seems odd for those of us who have been following Louis’ career since way back in the day when, from 1986 to 1989, he was more or less the aesthetic soul of Cherry Red offshoot él Records, where he released, produced, designed, consulted, oversaw; not to mention his collaboration with fellow travellers The High Llamas, Martin Newell, The Clientele, Bertrand Burgalat, et al.

So let’s just pause a second and introduce The Night Mail, the three-piece with whom he’s chosen to fly in formation for this album. They are fellow EU-citizen around town, musician and journalist Robert Rotifer on guitar; erstwhile Acid Jazzer artiste and Weller band member Andy Lewis on bass and Papernut Cambridge supremo and former Death in Vegas man Ian Button behind the drums.

They’ve got a collaborative backstory of their own, be sure: they backed cult singer-songwriter John Howard on a album named for both artists in 2015, released by Hamburg’s Tapete imprint; followed that with pinning down the sounds on Viennese chansonnier André Heller’s long-player from last year, which was lauded across Europe.

And it was actually three years ago at Tapete Records’ sold out, two-night, 15-year anniversary bash at London’s legendary Lexington that The Night Mail and Louis first crossed performing paths, as the former backed the latter.

“When I played with The Night Mail at The Lexington, I instantly knew that I could make a record with them,” says Louis Philippe, “because these guys were good, and they were fast.”

And so the calendar busied itself, days flurrying past; months; more. Then: the virus. Staunch friends with ever more to parley about, both being musicians from the EU as the flag was hoist over separation from the continent, it was the current situation that kicked the album from velleity to a living, breathing, project.

In September the whole band finally got together for rehearsals before decamping to Rimshot Studios in Kent to lay down 13 finely wrought tracks. In record company turnaround times, that’s quick. Once Louis and the lads got their mojo working, it came together beautifully. String overdubs from Big Big Train’s Rachel Hall and trumpet parts from Shanti Jayasinha, and here we are, poised on the cusp of release of one of the last albums to be released in this oddest of years; and how exactly does it shape up, once applied liberally to the ears?

Louis Philippe (far right) and The Night Mail, photographed by Josh Holland

Stylus meets wax with “Living on Borrowed Time” setting out its stall: a walking bass, with a little of Biff Bang Pow’s “She’s Got Diamonds In Her Hair”, strides out with some deft and jazzy percussion, all Wally Stott and the expansive brown studies of Scott 3. Louis tells of the ominous time borrowed we’re living through, ” … promises, songs and heavy wine”, stern piano a-rumble. The tension releases in the major-chord glory of the chorus, from which the song plays out atmospherically in eerie slide and luxurious strings. It’s fair to say it really isn’t a weak opening gambit. They’ve got this, it’s masterful pop. To the chaise longue perhaps, from where to let Thunderclouds wrap us up.

Grace is the keyword for “Once In A Lifetime Of Lies”, which very firmly places Louis in the piano auteur tradition of Emitt Rhodes, Van Dyke Parks, Noël Coward, McCartney: brilliant baroque pop with a slinky falsetto rising aloft, reaching back through that lineage and fashioning it in tandem with some bitter lyricism delivered oh so sweetly: “Who could have guessed what your fate had in store? … Once in a lifetime of lies.”

“Rio Grande” lifts us higher on a finger-snappin’ brass and piano swing; it could be the theme to the best 60s’ cult movie you ain’t never seen, it would possibly star John Voight or James Coburn; the 7″ would definitely bear the knotted trumpet logo of A&M. It’s nearly two minutes before Louis starts singing, and what a glorious thing this song is, the luxury of The Left Banke for our times.

“Willow” serenades in on the back of a violin from some Russian folktale, and could easily have served as a standout track on a High Llamas album circa Buzzle Bee; that slightly delirious, dream-state high psych-pop. Louis happens upon something no one else seems to have noticed before: that is, the fantastic sung mouthfeel of ‘willow’, all rolling and globular and playful.

“Fall In A Daydream” was a teaser single, which came fluttering its kohled eyes at us toward the end of October; it swoons and swirls and swings out there twixt the so-called British Sinatra, Al Bowlly, Brian Wilson and Sean O’Hagan – in other words, wholly and beautifully in Philippeworld. It has the lightness of touch of a dashing young buck tipping a hat to you in the street, but listen deeper and again you’ll find a steely lyrical content hidden in those beautiful textures, as guitarist Robert Rotifer indicated at the time: “When Louis first played this to me I was deceived by the catchy sweetness of the tune.

“It was only in the studio when he did the vocals that the dark implications of the song’s lyrics started to dawn on me.

“Let’s not beat around the bush: the 2017 Grenfell Tower disaster, in which at least 70 Londoners died, is testament to the murderous inequality within this still beautiful, amazing city. It felt almost unbearable travelling through West London around that time, the charred remains of the tower shockingly visible from the raised section of the Underground line, while jaded fellow passengers never even paused in their conversation.

“With hindsight, this song is my soundtrack to that experience. I just love how Philippe’s view focuses not on the calamity itself, but on those who casually looked away”.

Changes things, doesn’t it? And then you part the fronds of the musical verdancy and listen: “You watched the tower aflame / You carried on just the same … shall we say goodbye? / Both of us know why.” A pretty tune it may be, but Louis also uses the tune to draw a very clear line about what’s intolerable. Hell, we’ve embedded the video one more time at the bottom there. Go and glory in it, but tread carefully – and reflect.

“Thunderclouds” steps us down just a little from such righteous fury delivered in so seemingly carefree a fashion, coming on an eerie microtonal slur akin to the low drone of a Tube train traction motors slowing through Louis’ home patch of Shepherd’s Bush. It proceeds with a pace like a slow exhalation; like a suburban walk with your lover on a rainy day, Shanti’s trumpet break wringing every drop of wrapped-up romance from proceedings. It ends on a minor chord and that strings slur again, ushering forth the neo-gospel glimmer of “Love Is The Only Light”. This tune is packed full of majestic harmonies, intervals, cadences; if I was a musicologist I’d be able to point all this out. But I’m not, I’m an eternal fan of the muses, so I’ll have to stand on the side and in layman’s demotic say: wow, yes. Thumbs bloody up.

The pretty trumpet atmospheres of “Alphaville” scurry by en route to “No Sound”, a seductive exercise in the 3am lovelorn feeling, quirkily delivered in the second person: “Your hand reaches for the pillow / Where my head used to rest / And can’t be found … no sound.” The chorus pulls that neat major-chord resolution, in which Louis does indeed rise and shine. It seems to form a correspondence with the following “The Man Who Had It All”, a yearn for some past love delivered with all that seemingly insouciant melodic sweetness Louis absolutely aces. It brings a lovely arpeggiated Spanish guitar coda which puts one in mind of former Cherry Red stablemates Felt in its adept shimmer.

“Mighty Owl” begins where the previous track left off, led forward by beautiful guitars; it’s another luscious dispatch from the life of a lover, refracted through pretty lyrics and a trilling flute for good measure: “She caught the moon in her feathered lap,” he sings, bedazzled.

You’d swear it was Richard Thompson leading that particular electric folk guitar figure into the sleepy eyed swoon of “Do I”, a little step into more baroque folk stylings, again so perfectly paced. And this first album in far too bloody long, frankly, wraps it itself away in another swingin’ but scathin’ grand pop sweep, in love with everything wonderfully arranged sound can do, “When London Burns” – “Take a breath, take a look / Think of all the lies it took / To set you free again,” which seems a very thinly sideswipe at the grand Brexit folly. But, how beautiful to listen to.

Thunderclouds looks out and sees the rain on the horizon, pulls its collar up, the brim of itshat down, steps jauntily forth, wrapped in the finest gaberdine against whatever drenching may come with warmth in its heart. It couches life and love and wider societal issues of our time in complex, hummable and beautiful pop. Intelligence shoots through the whole work like a stick of seaside rock; the marriage of words to tunesmithery, the arrangements.

And there comes a time when action speaks louder than words; if any of the artists mentioned above through allusion, to which I’d obviously have to add The Free Design, Harpers Bizarre, The Monochrome Set, even Bill Fay, float your boat – and it’d be a pretty weird world where they didn’t – then stop reading, fetch your PayPal, treat y’self.

Louis Philippe & The Night Mail’s Thunderclouds will be released by Tapete on digital download, CD and LP on December 11th. You can order yours direct from Louis at his Bandcamp page, here; or from Tapete, here.

Look out for our exclusive interview with Philippe on Friday, in which we discuss él Records, London, Brexit, and Jonathan Coe – and he reveals probably the best football song ever written.

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