Pete Astor – Songbox

Pete Astor - Songbox

Although it’s somewhat lazy to keep talking of Pete Astor in terms of his veteran status – list-dropping his past CV entries with The Loft, The Weather Prophets, The Wisdom Of Harry, Ellis Island Sound and as a solo trading artist – some context is important in highlighting his journeyman status that has been aided by several Doctor Who-style regenerations over the years.  Having run a full creative cycle from being an archetypal ‘80s Creation Records jangler to a DIY electro-acoustic dabbler and most recently – for the solo Hal’s Eggs (2005) and Ellis Island Sound’s The Good Seed (2007) a left-field ploughing folk chameleon, Astor now takes another remarkable reinvention in his stride, with his debut release for the equally revitalising Second Language label.

In fact, Astor hasn’t merely signed on the dotted line to just have his 2L curators lovingly package his new album within a boxset stuffed with specially commissioned art postcards and a bonus disc of the same tracks covered by the likes of Piano Magic, The Raincoats and Comet Gain, he’s also pretty much recruited an ‘in-house’ band from the label’s already cross-collaborating ranks.  Moreover, Astor has let the multi-instrumentalist ensemble of David Sheppard (Ellis Island Sound, Phelan Sheppard, Klima, ad infinitum), Angèle David-Guillou (Klima, Piano Magic), Keiron Phelan (Phelan Sheppard, littlebow), Jenny Brand (Kluster Ensemble) and Simon Trought (production aide at regular 2L recording haunt, Soup Studios) have pretty much free reign in framing some of his most reflective, sophisticated and wry-witted compositions in some time.

Reassuringly – and perhaps predictably for those already familiar with the talent at the table – Astor’s guest players haven’t let him down across the eleven lushly layered pieces that make up Songbox.  With non-rock and woodwind-heavy configurations projecting his songs, Astor has his envelope pushed in fresh and alluring directions.  Hence cues are taken from such cosmopolitan Europhile sources as Jacques Brel and Serge Gainsbourg (“Dead Trumpets”); the same rehabilitated pastoral prog pastures as littlebow’s recent 2L LP, The Edge Blown Aerophone (magnified by Phelan’s prominent flute lines throughout proceedings); middle-eastern film noire (“Tree Of Birds”); and Leonard Cohen at both his most grandiose and intimate (for “The Perfect Crime” and “Mistress Of Song,” respectively).  However, there’s still room for Astor’s vintage Anglo pop sensibilities to make a bed in as well, giving a Kinksian twist to the otherwise baroque shapes of “The Ride” and “Slip Away,” which are aided in particular by meticulously-placed group backing vocals.

Colourful yet uncluttered arrangements aside, the core songwriting is still certainly the key to creative success on Songbox.  Whilst Astor’s dry semi-spoken Estuary English tones – pitched somewhere between The Auteurs’ Lukes Haines and The Bitter Springs’ Simon Rivers – might sometimes undersell his gift for wordplay, there’s a lot of depth to delve into here, especially over sustained and repeated listening.  From nostalgic memories of youthful discovery and escape (“Tiny Town”), cynicism-free romance (“Four Letter Word”), cinematic storytelling (“The Perfect Crime”), a veiled bittersweet observation on ageing (“Look Away”) and self-deprecating black humour (“Dunce”), Astor covers a range that honours the diversity deployed by his colleagues’ empathic accompaniments; feeding into the overall feeling that Songbox can – and indeed should – be appreciated from many alternate angles.

In short then, Songbox is yet another cliché-free step forward from an expertly-assisted renaissance man using his time and abilities more mindfully than ever before.

Second Language Records