FAO#26: Second Language Records (Ghostwriter & Piano Magic)

Second Language

As you may have read recently, through this writer’s uploaded pages on DOA, the London/Copenhagen-based Second Language label is already successfully nailing its reinvigorating manifesto on to the back door of the music industry.  Through a confluence of physical artefact celebration, fashion-avoiding attitudes, a playful sense of mystery, a tight-knit yet open-minded sense of community and an incredible level of quality control, the only risk that 2L now faces as a label, is staying frugally small whilst remaining wide-eyed.  Few fledgling labels could so audaciously grow themselves around an exclusive yet egalitarian subscription-model; few could breathe new life into the CD as an album format with such artful packaging; and few could command the confidence that every release should be never less than interesting or ambitious.  With a steadily-cranking release rate set for the rest of 2010 and beyond – that promises new albums from Klima (the solo guise of Piano Magic’s Angèle David-Guillou), Last Harbour-offshoot Brave Timbers and another thematic multi-artist compilation in the coming months – it seems shrewd to quickly capture some post-listening thoughts on two simultaneous new releases from the 2L stable before another one drops through the letter-box.

GhostwriterThe Continuing Adventures Of The Strange Sound Association (limited CD-only)

Ghostwriter - The Continuing Adventures Of The Strange Sound Association

In some ways, the Devon-based Mark Brend (AKA Ghostwriter) is a quintessential Second Language artist.  With connections to the label’s family tree (his current guest vocalist being George’s Suzy Mangion, a previous Piano Magic chanteuse); his reverence for Anglo-European eccentric experimentalism; a fondness for uncelebrated historical places and people; and a ‘gone-postal’ approach to stitched-together collaborations.  Consequently, whilst the verbosely-titled The Continuing Adventures Of The Strange Sound Association would be a curiosity shop that most would pass by on the music high-street, in the 2L context it feels a like welcome respite from the over-egged clichés of the mainstream as well as other supposedly ‘alternative’ artistic realms.

Such an oblique path-finding project doesn’t however lend itself to easy description.  But through broad examination of this album’s three demarcated ‘chapters’ a degree of critical unpicking is possible.  The opening 7-track ‘Music For Men Of Letters’ phase – the scene-setting interwar waltzing of “A Man’s Head (Waltz For George Simenon)” aside – largely focuses on melding a mixture of found sounds, meandering European film-noire scores and stirring spoken-voice recordings (most notably from booze-obsessed philosophizing author Colin Wilson).  The second wave – ‘Music For Imagined Technologies’ – employs Mangion’s pipes most widely, for a passage of rustically-bent Stereolab-meets-Textile Ranch shapes.  The closing ‘Music For Flotsam And Jetsam’ passage peels back the layers to find a near obligatory Eno-in-ambient-mode fixation at the core, yet it’s one that’s skilfully married to Mangion’s shared-penchant for Victoriana-to-pre-WW2 idioms, as best exampled on the closing almost a capella wooziness of “Another Favourite Beach.”  Throughout proceedings there’s a strong affinity with The Real Tuesday Weld’s antique sonic ticks and literary cross-pollinations circa-I Lucifer – albeit with less overt electronic manipulation or any reliance on pop song structures – that makes for an enjoyably engaging collage of genres, mischief and ear-tickling ingenuity.

Piano MagicHome Recordings (limited 2L subscribers-only CD)

Piano Magic - Home Recordings

Given that Piano Magic’s Glen Johnson is one-third of 2L’s nerve centre, it was only a matter of time before he gave fans a special reason to subscribe to the label.  The lo-fi – but far from scrappy – Home Recordings is emphatically a very special reason for Piano Magic fanatics to be signed-up.  Whilst lesser bands with the same amount of miles on the clock would only seek to revisit past ‘hits’ in stripped-down form to vainly revive flagging creativity, Johnson and co. do it out of pure love for intimate recording environments, to demonstrate the adaptability of consistently strong songwriting and to connect the latter-day live-centric line-up of the group with the early ethos of 1999’s sublime DIY-built Low Birth Weight. With Angèle David-Guillou taking on far more mic duties than on last year’s Ovations LP and Johnson re-voicing songs once given over to other guest singers, just in vocal terms Home Recordings is a dream come true for fans.  Adding more electro-acoustic and more loosely-framed arrangements into the mix makes for results that are frequently breathtaking and radically re-calibrating.

Highlights are hard to pinpoint when so many of the ten tracks here ooze with unbridled beauty and alluring atmospherics.  That said, gorgeous Angèle-sung deconstructions of “Dark Ages” (previously cut with Vashti Bunyan), “Amongst The Books An Angel” (formerly given a tentative Johnson singing spot) and “Incurable” (transposed from a pulsing electronic frame to a minimalist piano-driven setting) are truly transcendental.  Elsewhere, Johnson-led sparse re-workings of “A Theory Of Ghosts” and “When I’m Done (This Night Will Fear Me)” make fine but not forced links with his parallel solo career.  When Glen and Angèle effectively find themselves duetting, the intimacy almost feels like an intrusion for the listener, as heard on the Young Marble Giants-meets-The XX reincarnation of “Disaffected” and the dark-folk refashioning of “I Have Moved Into The Shadow.”  Interestingly, perhaps only the new takes on “Snowfall Soon” and “I Am Sub-librarian” don’t quite work as well in retranslation, but this probably because their earlier appearances on the aforementioned Low Birth Weight were near-impossible to improve upon anyway.  Rounded-off with a previously unheard new instrumental piece – “When You Are Gone” – Home Recordings is, as a whole, one holy grail rarity that will indeed be worth slow-to-know Piano Magic followers fighting for, in the eBay trenches, for many years to come.


Second Language Label Podcast 3 (featuring Ghostwriter and Piano Magic)