Berntholer – Merry Lines in the Sky

Merry Lines in the Sky

It takes a particular uniqueness to make a song stand out in its time and in the decades that follow. The special attributes can be in the singer’s vocal delivery, the lyrics, the instrumentation, the emotional tone, and/or the ambience. With “My Suitor,” Berntholer offered unmatched, instant majesty in all five areas. Released by the Belgian band in late 1983 on the small indie, Blue Feather, “My Suitor” was an intoxicating mix of Albanian lead singer Drita Kotaji’s accented vocals, her band mates’ dramatic cello and keyboard accompaniment, and romantic, vivid lyrical imagery. Two decades after its initial release, “My Suitor” is now available on the Berntholer compilation, Merry Lines in the Sky.

This collection, impeccably researched and assembled by LTM label owner James Nice, continues the English indie’s unblemished record of lovingly re-releasing original albums and creating new compilations of obscure post-punk/new-wave artists, with rare artwork, previously unavailable tracks and mixes, and fascinating interviews with the musicians. LTM’s catalogue tends to emphasize the 80s, though the label is moving into more 90s territory recently, with re-releases of albums by Revenge, Severed Heads, and The Field Mice.

Merry Lines in the Sky certainly ranks among LTM’s best releases, boasting 70 minutes of music spread over 15 tracks and three MPEG files of the original videos shot between 1981 and 1984 for “My Suitor,” “Exterior Nuit,” and “The Choice.” The CD opens with “My Suitor,” whose reputation as a “cold wave” cult classic has led to its being covered by artists as diverse as Figurine and the Belgian bands Buscemi and Das Pop, specializing in drum n’ bass and pop, respectively.

Kotaji begins the stunning torch song by dreamily singing: “He’s my suitor, just a wooer / A lighter, a fiddler / He’s a master of disaster / An offer for lovers / He’s a fighter with no dagger / A quitter, my killer / He’s a flicker, he’s a glimmer / I dreamed up and woke up / And then we saw we passed the way / And when we meet, we look away / And then we cross, we shrink in pray / And when we cry, we feel so stray / And when we spy, we hope one day / And then we miss, we dream away.” Appropriately, Wim Mertens, whose minimalist recordings inspired Kotaji to write “My Suitor,” composed “Pardon Up Here,” a stark piano and string extension to “My Suitor.” With Kotaji’s brief, echoed vocals, “Pardon Up Here” seamlessly follows “My Suitor” as the second track on the compilation.

“Lunacies” combines 40s jazz lounge tones with a chorus led by acoustic guitar that temporarily pushes the song three decades into the future. Berntholer seemed to enjoy mish-mashing different musical styles, as “Private Hotel,” The Curtain Long,” and “Map Your Eyes” demonstrate, with their very 60s-sounding keyboards. Manuel Poutte’s playing on both tracks recalls Ray Manzarek’s finest moments with The Doors, especially “Riders on the Storm.” The compilation’s similarly named title track has a subdued keyboard backing, with a jazzy ambience and Pol Fourmois’ prominent bass.

Interestingly, Berntholer recorded “My Suitor” as it was moving toward a heavier embrace of jazz, which Kotaji rejected, in part leading to the band’s dissolution in 1985. The band’s songs progressively sounded more like jam sessions, with guitarist/saxophonist Simon Rigot controlling the instrumental structure and Kotaji offering her mixture of surreal and mundane lyrics. “My Suitor” was different in tension and quality from everything else Berntholer ever recorded. Its other songs were consistently interesting but never reached the enchanting heights or mystery of “My Suitor.”

Merry Lines in the Sky effectively opens listeners’ ears and eyes to the young quartet’s varied creative palette, including such folk explorations as “You Grabbed Me by the Hand” and “Kingdom Mine.” Both songs benefit from Rigot’s gentle acoustic guitar and Kotaji’s more passionate singing. “You Grabbed Me by the Hand” even finds Berntholer’s dominant duo singing in perfect harmony. “Emotions” is the most upbeat song on the compilation, its punchy combination of keyboards and drum machine making it the only song on the disc that clearly conjures up the 80s.

Merry Lines in the Sky is a loving collection of obscure songs by a terrific band that created diverse and easily digestible music in its four years together. For those who take pleasure in reading surreal short stories rich in detail and listening to songs that weave warm tales using unconventional melodies, Merry Lines in the Sky would make a perfect addition to the CD racks.