"I’ve been following Marley Butler’s art-pop explorations for some years now; he’s always made interesting creative choices, but Awake Nightpresents the most radical change I’ve heard in his creative practice. The arrangements of these three pieces are built around bowed strings, embellished by tuned percussion in ‘Ruminate’ and ‘Knowing Alone’, electronic beats and vocals in ‘Toss and Turn’, and piano in ‘Knowing Alone’. The string writing is assured, and exploits the resources effectively, although the material is recognisably from the same stable as Butler’s existing oeuvre, and it’s easy enough to imagine it arranged for his more accustomed instrumental forces. ‘Knowing Alone’ sounds most specifically a composition for these instruments, but in all three pieces the listeners attention is effectively re-focussed by the novelty of the approach. As tonal and as pellucid as ever, Butler creates intimate spaces into which he places ideas of great clarity and precision, their simplicity a token of their bounded ambition; there are no grandiose pretensions here, and in consequence the sense is one of creative goals completely realised. An unmistakeable moment of real artistic growth, and of gracile beauty."
"Marley Butler is given to doing clever things musically, but the focus of his cleverness is usually in his manipulation of atmosphere, or in the way he exploits the symbology of pop music to access meanings beyond its usual compass. ‘1990’, the opening cut of A Saffron History, is positively mathy, with its initial riff built from four bars of 4/4 phrased as four of 7/8 plus one of 2/4, driven along by the soulful and technically adept drumming of Cedric Monzali, who provided the main element of muscular musicianly expression on Butler’s recent Opposites. That the piece also encompasses the opposite rhythmic pole before it’s done should come as no surprise to followers of Butler’s work, which is creatively consistent in its treatment of performative skill as one aesthetic effect among many. The atmosphere of this album is a light and airy one, not always founded in conventional musical values, but never abrasive or off-putting. It has moments of nostalgia, most notably in ‘It Ain’t Over Till The Children Sing’, arising through the superimposition of playground sounds on a gentle vocal ambience and water noises, and the use of a music-box, but this comes across more as an invocation of distance than a sense of loss. It’s more hypnagogic than hauntological, but I hear this music as too clear and limpid, too precisely stated, to sit comfortably in either of those camps. It is concerned with very specific times and places, rather than the a-geographic, a-historical cosmopolitanism that informs much music of the online era, usually to its detriment. Butler appreciates the beauty of a violin’s lower register, or of a human voice, and is comfortable valuing them as sounds created on particular occasions by particular musicians; he doesn’t need to trawl the recent past for roots like hipsters do in London, Los Angeles and New York, because he comes from Derby via Wolverhampton, places which have not yet succumbed to the semantic chasm of over-signification. This music (thanks in large part to his excellent collaborators) is all about sound, and the profound beauty thereof."
Like all Entr’acte releases, Opposites arrives in a hermetically perfect, vacuum sealed package, simple metallic grey plastic with one colour printing in the exact same typeface and layout as the rest of their catalogue. There is something disturbing about its severity and its integrity; I have never been so reluctant to open an album sent to me for review, and had I been able to download the tracks I probably wouldn’t have. In the end I took a scalpel to it, and attempted to open it as subtly as possible, from the back, but ended up scoring a very visible line across the front as well. This moment of rupture inevitably contributes to the readings of the work, but it seems mostly representative of the irruption of the distributor’s agenda into the music, given that Marley Starskey Butler did not design the packaging, and probably didn’t have a relationship with Entr’acte when he recorded it (in 2009). To restore some expressive urgency to the physical presentation, the album is distributed with a colour postcard: it appears to show a very young Butler on the front step of a modest house, probably in the early to mid 90s, smiling, but slightly slumped, slightly exasperated, as if to say ‘surely you’re not taking another photo?’
This certainly seems to relate directly to the musical contents of the package, which sample (at length) what sounds like the author’s childhood. Memory and nostalgia figure prominently in the most readily available interpretations of the album, with very specific field recordings of informal, demotic speech, rendered distant by processing, their relationship to the other sounds in the tracks, the reverberant spaces they are positioned in, and presumably by their own character as audio snapshots. They are contextualised in fields of simple loops, acoustic instrumental motifs, and electronic sounds, all originated and manipulated by Butler himself. The one exception is the drum part on ‘Papa’, the opening track, an improvisation of some subtlety and commitment, performed by Cedric Monzali. Whether this was laid down in response to a completed track, or if Butler responded to the drums in his composition, there is a complex and meaningful relationship between the dynamics and timbres of the improvisation and the sounds that surround it. Elsewhere the approach is less ‘musicianly’, and more compositional, with an approach that is both collagist and narrative. Some tracks are built to wind around a single central element, and others are more episodic, most notably ‘21 Opposites’. In ‘Rowlands Avenue’, against the laughter of a child that we are clearly invited to identify as Butler, simultaneous guitar loops begin to interfere with one another, generating jarring dissonances, before they fall into silence, and the child goes on to discuss the conceptual possibilities of the sandwich (‘you can put vegetables in a sandwich, but… in fact, nah… not, not vegetables…’)
Butler states explicitly (on its Bandcamp page) that Opposites was made while he ‘was thinking a lot about the notion of opposites and how they need each other to exist … [he] wanted to put together opposing sounds’. I suspect he was analysing his practice, rather than working programmatically, if only because I doubt the resulting work would have sounded this compelling in the latter case. He talks about giving painful experiences a positive valuation, and exploring the paradox or contradiction of positive experiences co-existing with negative ones ‘like a blanket of nails’. This is consistent with the ongoing relationship with his own past represented in the speech recordings, and in the accompanying postcard, although there are few notes of dissonance there, and pain really only enters the picture at a well anaesthetised remove, sublimed into melancholy or a vague sense of regret. As far as the overt investigation of the ‘notion of opposites’ is concerned, it’s harder to read that out of these sounds. A principal difficulty is that sounds do not have literal opposites, although any categoric system is dualistic; so sounds can be categorised in pairs like ‘natural/ artificial’, ‘acoustic/ electronic’, ‘loud/ quiet’, ‘sonorous/ keening’ or whatever, but there are no stark contrasts in this album to make such oppositions seem central to its meanings. Consonant harmonies are not juxtaposed to harsh dissonances, very quiet passages to very loud ones, or dense textures to open ones. Acoustic sounds often rub shoulders with electronic ones, and recordings of informal speech with conventionally musical elements, but such combinations are too commonplace to clash or jar.
What we have instead is a mellow, moody representation of personal reflection and memory, a moving and evocative series of meditations on the relationship of the past to the present, and of history to geography – as evidenced in titles like ‘Rowlands Avenue’ and ‘Arnold Southfield’. The cyclicity of much of the musical material, and its episodic structures, point to the kinds of dream-like narrative that are readily constructed from personal experience, in contrast to the closures and apotheoses of conventional songwriting’s more contrived scenarios. There are subtle and open-ended experiences to be had from this music; nostalgia is certainly a part of it, but it is fruitfully ambiguous, inviting as personal a response as the kinds of introspection it evokes. The music is never ambient in the sense of lacking rhythm or structure, but it evokes atmospheres as much as it utters any statements or tells any stories. I’m unable to hear how Opposites fulfills Butler’s stated creative intentions: it certainly doesn’t represent the concept of ‘opposites’ in any way that I could decode. But as an album, taken on its merits, it’s a remarkably powerful and absorbing essay in the aesthetics of memory, that marshals an array of sonic resources with great sensitivity, intelligence and skill.
Most of the tracks on this album are equipped with a skeleton of strummed guitar or programmed beats, although a couple are composed of invertebrate electronic ambience. But when the beats are hard, as on ‘Transience’, the mood is one of gentle contemplation; even a track like ‘Mikodeau’, which is just vocals and guitar, sounds very much of a piece with ‘Standover’, which is a slab of fluffy electronica with a spoken French vocal. For me, this collection of recordings is a good argument for the survival of the album format: a series of recorded works, conceived under some unifying creative condition, and presented together as a single entity, has a value that is greater than the sum of a playlist. These tunes present a diversity of textures and stylistic features, but the whole sounds unified and consistent.
The term ‘ambient’ will suggest something gentle to most people: that’s an appropriate assumption here, as although some tracks are strange or eerie, their weirdness is of a non-confrontational and pleasing variety. This gentleness should not be mistaken for a lack of substance however: there is a probing creativity at work here, and a challenging concern with questions of identity is evident in the lyrical text.
The conflict between the constructed nature of identity and our strong desire to feel our sense of self as something innate is a recurring theme here. The self in these songs is almost a cypher, devoid of certainty or inherence, drifting between past and future, a construct of both, but also their author. Identity is shown as distinction from the other, and related to intolerance; as a construct of self-examination; as an act of defiance; as an agglomeration of choices and experiences; as a process of transformation; but never as a given.
This rigorous and clear sighted representation is in stark contrast to the usual dramatic agents of popular song, whose identity is so much a given that they are archetypes more even than stereotypes; the songs equally eschew the false certainty of narrative closure, and the overriding sense is consequently one of ambiguity. This sense is no more to my mind than a representation of experience that is unclouded by the illusion of certainty: there is no ambiguity of meaning, which while complex, hard to pin down and impossible to paraphrase, is expressed with an admirable precision, perfectly embodied by the precise rhythmic structure of the beats in harness to the atmospheric and hypnotic soundscapes.
My French is very poor, so I won’t attempt to talk about the two songs whose lyrics are in that language, although I will say that Google Translate’s opinion was as hilarious as ever… I’ve often sought out music in other languages simply because not understanding the lyrics is often preferable to being annoyed by them: in this case however I find myself anxious to know what puzzle boxes of nested meanings they might contain.
At times, for me, the textures of Funambule recall the moods of Aphex Twin’s Richard D. James Album, but its atmospheres are very much its own, and it is both a more serious work, and despite its highly technological nature, a more organic one. There’s a very fertile chemistry at work between the two collaborators who produced this recording, which succeeds in expressing some challenging and thought provoking meanings without bludgeoning the listener: instead they are lulled into a receptive state, and the music’s uncanny, astringent aesthetic smuggles its subversion past the listener’s dormant preconceptions. Beautifully oblique, and obliquely beautiful.
Sagan Lane pushes duo into duality on a host of levels. On Funambule, Marley Butler and Sarah Bilodeau stretch their tightrope across the chasm between electronic and acoustic, looped structure and ambient accent, and sweet folk ballad and electronic beat. Like most strong art, Sagan Lane is more interested in presentation than resolution. Listeners can decide for themselves which elements are ascendent. Throughout Funambule, Bilodeau's voice is chameleon like, taking on the appropriate color for each piece, from Margo Timmons (Cowboy Junkies) to Suzanne Vega to Liz Phair. This flexibility gives the songs room to come into their own space. Similarly, the electronic sounds offer their own mix of moderate beats and ethereal shimmers.
The well named opener, Trip Under the Entrance, is an experimental piece that is dissociatively dreamy. When I was in school, we sat through anti-drug propaganda that tried to present the sensory disorientation of being high. Like their version of an acid trip, Trip Under the Entrance, has swells of sound, twitchy, punctuated beats, and lurches of incomprehensible vocals. This loopy, backmasked start forces the listener into the same choice of how to interpret all that follows and how pleasurable the experience will be. The following track, Mikodeau, provides a balm to the first track. The soothing indie folk emphasizes the folk side with added mild, electronic texture. Halfway though, the song transitions more fully to the indie side, with a stripped down Liz Phair kind of vulnerable honesty.
The rest of the album proves just as eclectic. Transcience contrasts an electro pop beat with stately strings and a Suzanne Vega vocal. Another lengthy track, Script, holds long vocal tones over a tight punchy melodic loop. Despite erecting a set of looped elements, the overall sound is sparse. The end opens up into a lushly vocalized, ethereal sound that exaggerates the sonic space of the piece. Isolated Opposites pairs a laid back electro beat with a moody track. The beat balances the snaky bassline and the sway of the hypnotic vocal.
Funambule offers a set of choices. Which aspects of Sagan Lane's sound will appeal or repel? Which songs offer the deepest meanings? The album lays it out before you...sip on a tart, strong margarita while you ponder.
But remember, not deciding is itself a decision.
I’m not quite sure what started Marley Butler rapping, but the noted art-pop auteur turns out to be quite good at it. He doesn’t attempt to blind us with what the rap mainstream would recognise as dazzling technique, but runs with its fluctuating meters and recursive rhyme schemes, cleaving to the spoken-word poetry fringe of the genre. With Aokid’s dream-like production underpinning his bars Butler’s free-associative lyrical flow produces a disorientating effect. This might or might not be a break-up song… but whatever it is, it’s far too ambiguous and complex for any such characterisation to sum it up. I could listen to this beautiful track all day, without ever working out quite what questions it’s asking.
Two members of Caution Elephant have cropped up on my radar in the past; bassist Marley Butler releases music under his own name, and with Sagan Lane, operates ‘production company and artists’ collective’ Naplew Productions, and produces artists including Caution Elephant’s vocalist Eleanor Williams, whose Orange Peel & Paper is a discretely accomplished album, including more than convincing interpretations of two Harburg-Arlen standards. Monster draws elements from diverse popular music dialects, including rock, reggae, 2-tone and urban blues, arranged for electric guitar, electric bass, drums and voice. Its lyric is playfully disturbing, its melody is jazzily curvaceous, and its arrangement is sparse, even at its peaks of dynamics and density. Creative, intelligent, amusing, and performed precisely to the requirements of the material, this track is all an avant-pop-rock song should be. If you click the YouTube link above, you’ll also see an exceptionally good video made by the band’s guitarist Emma Reading.
Mellow and heavy, the beat on which this single is based makes its bones at either end of the frequency spectrum, leaving the middle to the voices. Marley Starskey Butler’s contributes a measured flow of intelligent, reflective rap, and Anne-Marie Allen’s adorns the track with soulful embellishments. It’s a lovely sound, and although it’s not at all in-your-face, it has enough of strange and inventive details to keep you guessing. Another blinder from this art-pop auteur.
Rap is a relatively new technique to Marley Butler, but he doesn’t make the mistake here of taking it on in its core territories. Instead he exploits the specific impact of a lyric delivered rhythmically, setting up a nice flow with some simple cross-rhythms cutting through a sparse, chunky beat based on an acoustic bass sample. The main event in this excellent single is the lyrical text, and there’s a great video to accompany it. One account of a woman’s visual self-image is offered, from her lover’s perspective; then another is offered from hers. And then the groove ceases and a wordless female voice speaks its own bodily reality through melody. And then it’s done, enough content for a novella in under three minutes.
There’s a distinct eighties vibe to this delicate slice of luminescent synthpop. Staccato notes stutter in funky little flurries, some percussive, some pitched, but most too short to be wholly one or the other. Butler’s rap/spoken-word bridge is melancholy and full of doubt, while Ellie’s vocal celebrates in contrast. What comes of their differing perceptions is beyond the compass of the song, but within it, the emotional tension is a good counterpart to the summery vibe. Intelligent and subtle, and as well-made as all Butler’s work.