WHEN Raven Mahon, guitarist in sweetly lofi Californian art-indie band Grass Widow first bumped into Mikey Young, member of Australian angular synth post-punkers Total Control at a gig the band were sharing a bill at in Oakland, she probably never dreamed it would lead to a move halfway across the world, and a new band making woozy psych-synth music with huge depths of conceptual intelligence named after an obscure 1930s’ communist fantasy novel; yet that’s precisely what happened.
Life, as John Lennon said, is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.
Their self-titled debut album came out two years back; it was made transglobally, the pair separated by the Pacific. It was rather lovely; Raven brought a smokey and mysterious vocal nous to Mikey’s lush psychedelic soundscapes on tracks like “Traveler”, which came on like Melody’s Echo Chamber; while “Destroyer” showed a knack with a Germanic wonkpop thang: Nico met The Mobiles met United States of America in the scented corridors.
Since which Raven has taken the plunge and moved Down Under, with their new songs dreamt up and laid down in the basement studio of the pair’s house on stilts in Rye, an hour south of Melbourne on the Mornington Peninsula.
They’re about to be two albums into their voyage, with new LP Simmering Basset due to be offered to you through the offices of Upset The Rhythm this Friday, October 23rd. And if intelligent, woozy synth pop with atmosphere is your thing, then step right in.
And as far as they’re concerned, they’re happy with how it’s turned out in comparison with what’s a pretty hot debut set by any standards.
Raven explains: “It feels more cohesive because over the year or so in which we wrote these songs I started to feel a desire to take the lyric writing part more seriously.
“My head is rooted in this new place now and that’s settled into the songwriting.”
Simmering Basset seeps into your brain on the almost-pristine, 80s’ synth pop of recent single “Fashion Light”. I say almost – the wayward melodicism, the autumnal atmosphere, the thought involved – places it on another level. If you have a hankering after the great, first era of synth pop, then perhaps the only people who could have stepped forward with a song like this is Propaganda; and even saying that, Raven’s blissful coo of a voice takes it into more blissfully wyrd waters.
The melodic shapes are bent and blurred, all in the service of her quirky, choppy lyrics; “If in/ certain /circles / we pay / dearly,” she sings. It’s curious and quietly addictive.
Raven says of the song: “‘Fashion Light’ is about how, in the company of someone new, a map of attraction forms from flashes, a taste, gestures, insight, collaged into a personality and a connection. And when the process is forced to sit and wait, the gestures become memories and then anchors holding everything intact until it is accessible again and really knowable.”
We’ve embedded the video for you below as a little amuse–bouche for the album.
Next up is the track released as the first single, “Low Desk, High Shelf”: again, curious synth pop, cute, melodic, arch, conceptual – watch the fake-gore fest of the picnic in the video and wonder at the imagery at work; shown, not told. Raven brings her warm, detached intonation; a little psych guitar riff wends a cracking off-kilter pop tune home. “See the face and feel your body sway, in voluntary walk, intoxicating view, take it home, a photograph, a file final form, a token for the shelf …,” she declaims. Think Broadcast clutching a copy of Smash Hits in one hand, but steadfastly refusing to show you what they’ve got clutched in the other, behind their back.
“The song was inspired by Albert Camus’ The Stranger and his theory of absurdism loosening up reality,” says Raven.
“In one dimension, a story is constructed from nothing, arbitrarily, like the photograph presenting a selected perspective. And then in the following dimension, we are subjected to that story’s rules and judged by how fully we embody them.” Yep, a lot of thought at play.
“Dreamcom” brings a circular, addled funk riff, cut dead in its prime, to a far-out bliss of warm organ, foreground squelch, Raven seducing like a French chanteuse within the weave of sound. The band tell us it concerns relying on memory as an anchor for intimacy. It’s a great soundtrack for a very stoned bliss out in the dunes: measured and deep. “Tony Bandana” is built on a big rock riff and pounding drums, bringing you round only to usher you into a different neo-psych blur.
“Health Farm” is a real highlight. As with the single, “Low Desk, High Shelf”, Raven proffers little fractured lyrical shards, here over a percussive skitter, and the calmly unrolling chord melody has a little of Boards of Canada built into its stately peregrination. Again, it’s as if such a lauded and recherché musical act had somehow discovered their inner pop muse.
“Witness” proceeds on a very hauntological, bassy riff, stripped back; Raven takes your hand and leads you into their world. Curious little clickings and sweet synth washes break the song out through lush reverbed colours. I mean, it’s as if A-ha met Tame Impala and Françoise Hardy and found a workable supergroup situation; cool, continental, louche, sophisticated, pop; weird. Clever as hell. “Smart Clothes” takes that triad and shifts it firmly to some retro-future Montmartre.
“The Installation” takes Raven’s relocation and her experiences of learning how to interact with her new environment for a dreamy spin in open, halcyon synth territory, with a swelling sax adding a little 80s’ classicism.
“Resurrection” nods to the psych-pop strain running through The Green Child: it’s a cover of a song by Canadian singer Andy Kim (actually the voice of The Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar”, bubblegum fans). Raven’s voice seems to crack with languid emotion; there’s a lost love here, be sure. “You know I had a dream about you / I think it was yesterday / Hey now, what happened, anyway?” she laments. It’s intimate and grandiose all at once.
After the tearjerking of “Resurrection”, we float into “Double Lines” on a shimmer and chatter of ambient tronica, one foot in Warp Records, one maybe in China Crisis; before it breaks out into sleepy lyrical impressionism from Raven, snatches of entities, orbits, pressure drops; that French chanteuserie becomes wrapped in a space-age melody, lilting away into the dusk skies, the first stars overhead. OK … wow.
What The Green Child have created on Shimmering Basset is a really curious record. Taking perhaps some inspiration from the mysterious changeling of the novel from which they took their name, it walks like us, it talks like us … but every sense tells you it isn’t at all what it seems. At points, you get all sorts of little glittering strands of other musics – add to those mentioned above Gwenno, Unknown Mortal Orchestra; but like a butterfly, as soon as impression lands it takes flight off again before you can catch it.
It seems to have psychedelic, baroque pop roots and nods, yet really, not quite; it’s classic (and classy) 80s’ synth pop, but not quite. It’s as if Mikey and Raven have held up a mirror to pop history, smashed it with glee, and are now using the shards to scry it over their shoulders in a joint spell-casting.
Shimmering Basset is a clever, mysterious, engaging pop album. You should climb under its covers awhile.
The Green Child’s Simmering Basset will be released by Upset The Rhythm on download, CD and vinyl formats on October 23rd. Place your order at the label’s shop, here.