Philip Polk Palmer – Here In The Deadlights

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Philip Polk Palmer – Here In The Deadlights

I nearly got this review very wrong. For about a week I had it filed as Here In The Headlights, a result of my basically not reading the title properly but also, I decided, a result of Philip Polk Palmer‘s own brand of wordplay tricking me into the sort of mistake I always think I’m too experienced to fall foul of. Everyone knows what headlights are, but ‘deadlights’, well, those are entirely the invention of Mr. Palmer, and when I did eventually correct the error, as I began writing the review and listening to the album with my reviewer’s ear, I thought myself somewhat wary of the album’s musical content, lest there were other traps awaiting the uninitiated contained within it. Music writers will always make mistakes, and Philip Polk Palmer is one of those musicians that get a lot of things right.

Hailing from Savannah GA, Here In The Deadlights is a record that has taken Philip Palmer several years to both record and release, a personalised response to his hometown that draws influence from his own declared influences and likes, and while his website lists over forty bands and other musicians whose work has helped to shape his own, there are one or two of these that appear to figure prominently on the album. There is the purposed minimalism of Low, the keening guitar pyrotechnics of Pylon, the archly turned phrasing of Wall Of Voodoo, and though they aren’t actually among the bands mentioned directly, there is definitely the influence of the earlier music of The Cure, particularly in the first half of the album.

As opening track “Down The River” brings us a tale of a – probably metaphorical – riverboat journey gone awry, it does seem that Philip Polk Palmer’s main intention is to lead us, much like the mythical boatman Charon, into a Hades of his own devising. Although it’s a boat you’d best stay aboard as “The banks are lined with wicked things / They are looking for a feast,” Palmer tells us in a voice of modulated clarity, unlike the throaty rasp you may have come to expect whenever boatloads of souls destined for purgatory are the matter of song lyrics. The music is mid-tempo swamp blues, weighty bass notes jostling with sharply phrased guitar licks. It’s certainly a smoothly played and produced sound and “Better In The Books” (a caustically worded jibe at someplace that gets too many tourists) and “Frog Strangler”, which takes as its theme the phenomenon of fish and other unusual objects falling from the sky during storms, these three songs very much share a similarity of tone and musicality. Then “Apparition”, a short instrumental, signifies a change of pacing in the music and fifth track “The Call” is a quite different kind of song, with less emphasis on the mordant themes of mystery and the supernatural and a more conventional approach to songwriting, really. Palmer mentions The Psychedelic Furs as an influence and there is more than a tinge of Richard Butler’s caustically dry phrasing about “The Call”, while the addition of a synth and some electronic percussion provide a suitably post-punk ambience.

The probable album highlight, following on from another short instrumental “Embryonic Language”, is “Joyride”, a song where, yes, there is a definite nod to The Cure’s “A Forest” in the phased guitar that features throughout the song but also, it’s perhaps the most focused and purposeful moment on an album that doesn’t ever really lose its corrosively determined grip, either in the songwriting or the musicality. “Seeing Stars” takes a lighter tone at least musically with its chiming guitar notes and more subdued backline although the words are losing none of their archness; “I saw you last night / And you weren’t a pretty sight,” sings Palmer and we can only hope that he and the object of his scorn have made it up since the song was recorded. Lastly, “Goodbye” doesn’t sound a lot like anything else on the album, it’s just Philip Polk Palmer and his guitar saying goodnight to everyone and with a tone of  benevolence that it needs to be said is missing from much of the rest of the album. “I wish you well / We made some memories,” sings Palmer, before sending us off to our rooms, our brains addled with images of ancient terrors, of things that live in the swamp and of record stores that stock our favourite albums and that are never actually open.

Not everyone is really going to like Here In The Deadlights. Its persistent gloom seems somehow contrived and even in its less dark moments the songwriting and its weighty themes can detract from the often skilfully realised musicianship. This isn’t to say that listening to Here In The Deadlights will have its audience reaching for the sleeping pills and bourbon though, it is a far too finely crafted work to be written off as an unremittingly depressive and unforgiving experience. Best listened to after dark though.

Silber Records