9 Dec 2018

Lawrence Arabia's Singles Club

From New Horizons, 5:00 pm on 9 December 2018

James Milne, AKA Lawrence Arabia, has been putting together a new album, track by track, releasing a new song every month throughout 2018. William Dart checks on his progress as the year draws to a close.

Lawrence Arabia

Lawrence Arabia Photo: Amelia Handscomb

Sadly, Mr Postman doesn’t come so often these days. I suspect that poor, dear Madame de Sévigné would blanch with horror, but it’s email now that provides that tingle of anticipation when you open up the latest invitation to a gallery opening, or a book launch.

Or perhaps to receive another tune from Lawrence Arabia, channelled through cyberspace to loyal members of the singer’s Singles Club.

And this is a Singles Club that’s guaranteed to satisfy. You won’t be entangled in fraught dating rituals.

All you have to do is listen. To a man with a proven track record as one of the country’s most characterful songwriters. The man responsible for this number, which carried off the Silver Scroll songwriting award in 2009, a song that might well have been picked up by the Marvelettes, if they were still in the business.

(Advisory: video possibly NSFW... >͜  < )

James Milne, who’s the man behind the artist known as Lawrence Arabia, is extremely savvy when it comes to marketing. Hence this drip-feed of a dozen songs this year, which, by early 2019, will be available on CD — as well as what he wistfully describes as a beautiful, pretentious, impractical and non-sustainable vinyl LP.

You too can be part of the Arabian publicity machine by purchasing a T-shirt from his well-orchestrated Boosted-style prospectus.

Ten songs have come my way so far, and there’s another bonus ... a big one.

Perhaps, like me, you’re heartily sick of purchasing music online to get nothing apart from the sound-file. As if anyone should even dare to wonder who wrote what you’re listening to, or who just happened to be the pianist on a particular number.

Not so with Lawrence Arabia. Each song comes with a pithy abstract summarising its theme. There are lyrics, performing credits and notes on the recording and the genesis of the music.

So thorough, in fact, that I’m beginning to wonder whether this is all going toward some postgraduate diploma at one of our august academic institutions before they close all their music departments.

Well, he thoroughly snared me from the first instalment: the song 'Solitary Guys'. Introduced over the sort of casual strumming that spells Kiwi music to so many, we’re given the most deliciously preposterous of scenarios.

Well, preposterous, but also provocative. A vision of lame hetero men, deserted by their women, who’ve decamped to a more accommodating planet. These solitary guys, forced to take care of themselves, have the ultimate humiliation of being duped by a replicant Eve.

Often a one-man band, playing everything from harpsichord and guitars to a Baldwin Fun Machine, Lawrence Arabia brought in drummer Alistair Deverick on that last track. His friend and neighbour is back on the second song, to add some propulsion to a duet with Tiny Ruins titled 'Everything’s Minimal'. It's a number that’s described by the singer as an Instagram brag rap from the perspective of a couple who have three creative, well-behaved toddlers and a collection of immaculate Danish furniture.

Musically, it all grew around the concept of baroque folksong and you can hear traces of this, as the two singers trade cynical phrases with just the right aura of ennui and non-concern, lounging presumably in Danske Møbler comfort.

And talking lounge, do sit back and luxuriate, yourself, in some particularly smooth and cushiony harmonies.

Some of the most intriguing sounds of Lawrence Arabia new set of songs turn up on the single, 'One Unique Creature' — justified,  perhaps, by a song described as showing what happens when a dysfunctional relationship is temporarily improved by hallucinogens. 

The graceful sighs of its melody, peppered by Will Rickett’s percussive pitter-patter, are as persuasive as anything this man’s written. And there’s even a taste of Arabia, the place itself, in the casbah-like slidings of Rachel Wells and Alex Taylor’s strings.

It might not whirl us past Jupiter and Saturn, as did Saint-Saëns in his opium song, but dissolving into nature is such a lovely, eco-friendly escape.

There’s a special spacey reward if you hang in there for the last of the song’s six minutes (it’s by far the longest of the ten). Sink back and enjoy some of the trippiest 45 seconds since the halcyon days of classic flower-power.

Lawrence Arabia’s Singles Club policy of releasing one song at a time has advantages. One can really live with each new number, making friends with it and appreciating its twists, turns and devilish deviations. And there sure a lot of these when this man picks up a pen or goes into the recording studio

It was certainly helpful with that last song, which caused some serious brow-wrinkling in its creation. But I’m not so sure that even a month of listening would get me onto the wavelength of the following song, 'A Little Hate', with its atypical bristling agro, in lyrics and music.

'Everybody Wants Something' is a friendlier track, despite an apology that it’s a cathartic moan about the perils of connectivity.

If this were a marquee, I’d be carefully tethering it down, lest it take to the skies. Its airy lightness has it floating on the gorgeous backing vocals of Eliza Jane Barnes and Ryan McPhun. And it’s interesting that Elroy Finn and Sean Donnelly are thanked for the loan of instruments, sound-makers that I assume have the leavening properties of a musical Edmonds Baking Powder.

The background notes for the song are quite a confessional. He talks of generational discomfort doing Q&A sessions with school students and then baby boomers. And how the song wavered at first, moving from the models of George Harrison and Ligeti to a piece of pop fluff.

Which is how the singer himself terms it . . . and I’m the last to object to pop fluff when it’s so stylishly perpetrated.

One of the new Lawrence Arabia songs takes on one of my favourite subjects: the whole business of songwriting. And we have every reason to suspect that irony is afoot when it’s titled 'Meaningless Words' and its abstract describes it as a meditation on the value of songwriting in an apocalypse.

But, for all the irony, one feels this man might be talking from the heart in lyrics that ponder meaningless words thrown out into the void for folks to party to, and to keep the songwriter in employment.

Lush harmonies at the beginning suggest that someone’s been bitten by a Beatles bug, or even perhaps its Bee Gee cousin. But despite the crush of velveteen vocals, this song boasts a pretty funky band by the usual Lawrence Arabia standards. Peau Halapua plays violin, Tim Stewart of Hopetoun Brown brings along his trumpet and Jeff Henderson divides his time between a trio of reed instruments, with a baritone sax that would get any party rumbling.

Whenever I listen to the music of Lawrence Arabia, for all its ironies and tilting around, I feel that the man himself, James Milne, inhabits what I’m listening to. This is writing that very much feeds off the life and lives around the man who’s spinning the notes and words.

Take a track like 'People are Alright', which he describes as a triumphant attempt to bargain with misanthropy. It was spurred on, he tells us, by a blissful winter day at Lake Heathcote, walking around, listening to music and watching people walk their dogs and feed the ducks.

Apart from Elroy Finn on drums, snaring up the atmosphere of a mock-heroic march, it’s one of those one-man Lawrence Arabia packages, with banks of the sweetest vocal harmonies.

If the writing and singing of it brought cathartic release from dark places, perhaps we’re also being given some idea of just how dark those places were.


I’m saving Lawrence Arabia’s most evocative title for last and '(Contagious Dream Heals the World)' is the final of the ten tracks that have appeared to date.

It’s an instrumental and he’d be the first to admit that’s it’s the stuff of dreams, beautifully evoked on a relatively modest platoon of instruments.

Perhaps it’s destined  to be the closing track on the projected album next year but, in the meantime, I’ll be waiting for song #11.


Music Details

'Song title' (Composer) – Performers
Album title

'Please Mr Postman' (Dobbins et al) – The Marvelettes
Deliver: The Singles 1961-1971

'Apple Pie Bed' (Milne) – Lawrence Arabia
Chant Darling
(Honourary Bedouin)

'Solitary Guys' (Milne) – Lawrence Arabia
Singles Club
(Honourary Bedouin)

'Everything’s Minimal' (Milne) – Lawrence Arabia
Singles Club
(Honourary Bedouin)

'One Unique Creature' (Milne) – Lawrence Arabia
Singles Club
(Honourary Bedouin)

'Everybody Wants Something' (Milne) – Lawrence Arabia
Singles Club
(Honourary Bedouin)

'Meaningless Words' (Milne) – Lawrence Arabia
Singles Club
(Honourary Bedouin)

'People are Alright' (Milne) – Lawrence Arabia
Singles Club
(Honourary Bedouin)

'Contagious Dream Heals the World' (Milne) – Lawrence Arabia
Singles Club
(Honourary Bedouin)

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