13 May 2023

The Sampler: Cloudboy, Fred Again..., Brian Eno, Terrible Sons

From The Sampler, 2:30 pm on 13 May 2023

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Tony Stamp reviews the reissue of Cloudboy's ambitious 2001 epic, an ambient album by Brian Eno and Fred Again…, and Terrible Sons' hushed and wholesome debut LP.

Down at The End of the Garden by Cloudboy


Photo: Supplied

Every so often an album is reissued that’s especially deserving. This year’s Record Store Day saw a vinyl repress of a local classic, by a Dunedin band born from the ashes of a larger collective, who used burgeoning musical technology to realise ideas previously outside their reach.

Incorporating strings, brass, Indian instrumentation and more on top of samples, drum machine and live instruments, it would be a wildly ambitious record were it released now. It sounds all the more fearless and far-reaching considering it originally came out in 2001.

Formed in 1995, Cloudboy were a trio that sprang from the ashes of the Dunedin collective Mink. A vehicle for the songs of Demarnia Lloyd, she was joined by Johannes Contag and Craig Monk, both of whom played guitar, but credits for their album are purposefully fuzzy - all three are listed as helping record and arrange, which seems to be the most important thing.

Contag, who went on to play in The Golden Awesome, is quoted in the liner notes saying “Broadcast-quality home recording was still quite new then, and one of our main instruments was the sampler”, saying it was “like being in a huge playground of sonic possibilities”.

That’s the impression you get from listening to the album - no two songs have the same palette, and it’s a credit to the band that they didn’t let the untold aural options overwhelm them. At the same time, they aimed high.

Around ten years later Monk would go on to study Indian classical music, hints of which can be heard on the album opener ‘Teaboy’, which drops the listener into a soundscape of reversed flute, tabla and sitar.

The one and only Cloudboy album, Down at the End of the Garden, was released by Arclife and Loop Records. This reissue comes courtesy of the label that housed their prior EP, Flying Nun.

It was mostly recorded in Wellington, but they hailed from Dunedin, which prompted critic Russell Baillie to note in his review for the NZ Herald, “There’s not a tortured guitar within earshot”. He goes on to say the album “suggests the result of the city's lo-fi creativity blooming in a digital setting”, which still rings true.

There’s certainly a Gothic tinge to much of it, but there are also songs like ‘Red Rubicon’, which jaunts over a Latin rhythm and some rambunctious brass. 

Contag said recently, “The main aim of Cloudboy was to frame Demarnia's songs and intimate voice in compelling, unusual and evocative ways”.

Combining downbeat pop with ornate arrangements was nothing new at the time - there were hugely influential records in the rearview by Massive Attack, and Portishead (who Cloudboy were compared to at the time, as well as Bjork). 

But there’s an element of grit here that for me brought to mind fellow New Zealanders Headless Chickens. Nineties touchstones abound, like the lively snare drum and guitar stabs on ‘The Long Underwater’. 

Cloudboy were ambitious sonically, and in other ways too - joined on stage by up to five extra musicians, incorporating theatre into live performances, and in one show, interacting with films from the 1920s. 

Down at the End of the Garden took four years to assemble, and the results are intriguing twenty years on. It’s only fitting that it’s been given this commemorative reissue, which will hopefully introduce it to a whole new audience.

Secret Life by Fred Again…, Brian Eno

Fred Again...

Photo: Supplied

Recently, with very little notice, a collaboration between a living legend and a young musical upstart was released into the world. Without context it seems unlikely, a pairing between an all-rounder who's as hyperactive in person as his rhythms are on record, and the godfather of ambient music.

And while this is an ambient album, it’s a blockbuster version of one, stuffed with talent that’s only apparent once you check the liner notes, happy as they are to give themselves over to a spacious and serene bigger picture.

In 1978 Brian Eno released Ambient 1: Music For Airports, and in doing so coined the term ‘ambient music’. Here he is all these years later collaborating with Fred Again…, who won Best Producer at the 2019 Brit Awards, the youngest to do so at the time. He’s now 29.

When Fred was 16, he joined an acapella choir at Eno’s studio and worked with him again, as well as Karl Hyde from Underworld, in 2014.

Born Frederick Gibson, there’s been a whiff of controversy around Fred Again…’s status as a ‘nepo baby’ - he met Eno through his parents, who are members of British peerage, or nobility. 

Aristocrats and socialites dot Gibson’s family tree, which presumably made creating a career in music that much easier. His first three albums are called Actual Life 1 - 3, based on the diaristic recordings he incorporates into his music - not the most original idea but one he’s made a trademark.

This foray away from rhythm is called Secret Life, and with Eno’s guiding hand firmly in place, the results are frequently lush and lovely, as on tracks like ‘Enough’.

Some weeks ago, Fred Again…, alongside fellow dance producers Skrillex and Four Tet, closed Coachella Festival with a DJ set that was a last-minute replacement for Frank Ocean.

It was jubilant for both fans and performers, who seemed to be having the time of their lives.

Secret Life is out on Four Tet’s label Text, but he’s absent from the liner notes. Each track was written by Eno and Gibson, who evidently opened the Rolodex and contacted some notable contributors.

There’s writing and production here from the singer Eyelar, Canadian folk musician Leif Vollebekk, Frank Ocean collaborator Buddy Ross, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon adds vocals to one cut, and another called ‘C’Mon’ is co-written and produced by Aaron Dessner, of the band The National, and better known these days for collaborating with Taylor Swift.

In his Guardian review of Secret Life, critic Ben Beaumont-Thomas points out that Fred Again… attended a “very posh boarding school” and goes on to call the album “witlessly unimaginative” and “trite”.

Class critique notwithstanding, I think the record’s imagination is self-evident, from recognisable instruments submerged in reverb to unclassifiable ones, rhythms creeping out of crowd noise, and melody from chatter.

Frankly, Brian Eno making an ambient record will always be good news. and joined as he is here by some famous friends, the results are frequently transportive. 

The Raft is Not the Shore by Terrible Sons

Terrible Sons

Photo: Supplied

The two members of Christchurch’s Terrible Sons have plenty of musical mileage under their belts from separate projects but have taken their time in releasing a debut. Perhaps that’s appropriate given the patient quality of their songs, and after seven years of existence, their first LP is out in the world.

Tasteful without being tepid, its members have spun personal stories, and possibly their feelings for each other, into stately, easily accessible folk-pop.

Lauren and Matt Barus, partners in life as well as music, operate from an intentional community in Ōtautahi. Matt was a member of the rock band The Dukes in the 2000s, and Lauren is better known as L.A. Mitchell, a solo performer with a long list of past collaborators including Fly My Pretties. 

The duo began to work on music together after they were married, and found success with the track ‘Tears Don’t Fall’, which clocked up tens of millions of streams before they’d played a single live show. 

On their debut The Raft is Not the Shore, the highlights for me are the most vulnerable moments, like the tender chorus in the opening track ‘Birdsong’.

It’s easy to read a line like “If I pause you one second becomes an hour” as a declaration of love between partners, and perhaps it is, but in interviews and liner notes it becomes clear that Terrible Sons have much more than that on their minds - existential ponderings about the world and bringing children into it.

There’s an extra gravitas to the music thanks to its hushed nature, which, in a recent interview with the NZ Herald, Matt Barus credits to writing at home and not wanting to disrupt the neighbours. The album was recorded there too, in the couple's studio as they alternated between parenting and music-making.

In the past, Lauren and Matt have written separately, but this time it was more collaborative. What emerges are ideas about connectivity and community, made plain in tracks like ‘Yelling in the Wilderness’. 

The album was produced by Tom Healy, who’s shepherded some of this country’s finest mellow-inclined records of recent years, including Tiny Ruins, which he plays guitar in.

On their previous EP, Tom encouraged Terrible Sons to experiment sonically, and that continues here - nothing radical, more in the way things are layered, and the odd bit of ear-catching percussion. 

They also enlisted the services of London’s Urban Soul Orchestra for tracks like ‘Asperatus’, which dips in and out of a more soul-focused feel.

In that interview with The Herald, Terrible Sons mention drawing inspiration from their community and neighbours. They said politics creep in with regard to any injustices they may perceive. 

Which sheds some light on the album’s title. The Raft is Not the Shore is from a Buddhist parable, and one of its meanings is to hold your beliefs lightly. In the liner notes Matt mentions the ‘entrenched spaces we find ourselves in’, and wanting to see outside themselves in these songs.

That’s clear on tracks like ‘Watching and Watching’, which seems to articulate getting stuck in negative news cycles and losing sight of what’s important. The resonance between the duo’s voices serves as an example of what they think matters.