The shotgun marriage between rock music and poetry is not always a happy one, but in the work of Bristol’s Blue Aeroplanes they have coexisted quite easily for over thirty years. Their unusual mix of REM meets Lou Reed, with jangly Peter Buck-style guitar backing mainly spoken word performances, was beloved among the indie and art rock crowds long before their breakthrough 1990 album Swagger. They used banjos and mandolins when these were not at all commonplace – and neither was incorporating a DJ onstage in the pre-hip-hop era or featuring an unusually flexible male dancer, the very bendy Wojtek Dmochowski. Unsurprisingly their quirky music and performances inspired, among others, Radiohead and Manic Street Preachers. After an absence of six years the Blue Aeroplanes’ new album Welcome, Stranger! is a continuation of their thankfully unchanged and immediately identifiable sound.
While he is sometimes slightly difficult to understand over the drive of the music backing him, singer-poet Bristol beatnik Gerard Langley has none of Jim Morrison’s stentorian delivery, aviator sunglasses (rather he wears what appear to be iconic Ray-Ban Wayfarers), or that pretentious poetry slam “I’m-reading-a-meaningful-poem” voice. His wordplay and deadpan humor – notably on the unexpectedly funny Elvis Festival and Bristol-centric Retro Moon – are much easier to follow than, for example, John Cooper Clarke’s scattershot verbosity. He also happens to be Head of Songwriting at BIMM Bristol, where he has mentored many successful young songwriters, including George Ezra.
One of the album’s highlights is the energetic Dead Tree! Dead Tree! (“It’s not a symbol/it’s just a dead tree/I still hope they don’t cut it down/because it means something to me”), possibly one of their best-ever songs. On Skin singer-guitarist Bec Jevons, who is new to the ever-shifting lineup, celebrates actual intimate contact when many people’s closest friends and crushes may well be those they have never met in the flesh, as Gerard described recently for Drowned in Sound: “I love that idea of welcoming someone into your skin. Identity is increasingly important in an age where many of your friends will be pixels.”
Bec provides drop-dead wonderful backing vocals and harmonies throughout the album, and she and guitarist Mike Youe play in lock-step unison on a “fiddly part” (Gerard’s words) midway through the closing song Poetland. Mike plays flawless mid-‘80s indie guitar on Sweet, Like Chocolate and falls into a nice Richard Lloyd chaotic spiral at the end of Looking for X’s on a Map.
The Blue Aeroplanes are in the middle of their first full-scale UK tour in ten years. For more information go to their official website.