There’s no doubt we live in times where it’s exceptionally easy to become jaded and cynical. Not least with some aspects of the slowly crumbling music industry as it is dragged reluctantly into a world it’s barely tooled-up for. Sometimes then, it’s instantly clear why many artists start from an equally bleak position as they face the sometimes impenetrably huge task of getting heard widely. But then there are artists who in the face of all this seem to assume a strangely zen-like serenity whilst the rest of the sorry circus howls around them. Esperi is just such an artist. There is a small clutch of acts who share the dubious honour of having cropped up here on Songs Heard On Fast Trains on more than one occasion, and despite a general policy of trying to mention new things wherever possible this has been entirely justified in the case of Chris Marr, as he has worked through a very public process of growth and reinvention. From singer-songwriter to experimentalist, and then on to string-drenched balladeer – all that work, all that quiet dedication to his cause has paid off and can be found in his debut album “In a Moment, Emotion, Sentiment”. There are some comforting, heartwarmingly familiar things here, some which will gently but insistently challenge perceptions, and finally some which will dazzle with moments of quiet and understated beauty. This is a very special record indeed…
The album opens with a wonderfully sprawling piece of music which begins with shimmering electronics and Esperi‘s signature toy bells, and builds through the repetition of the strange and unexplained mantra “Silo The Fire” which lends the track it’s title. Just when the gentle drums and bleeps have lured you into a calm sense of security, triumphant strings erupt. It’s a bold, brassy lead in to a complex and touching record. The equally expansive “Proverb” uses stabs of bright, clear strings to drive its dash from urgent, edgy verses to gently sweeping choruses. There’s a point where the strings spiral gorgeously upwards and an uncharacteristically gloomy sounding Chris begins to gently work his way through a series of time-worn clichés, popping bubbles and blowing holes in their fuzzy logic as he goes: “every cloud has a silver lining/but this one’s hard to see“. On “Home” though, he has recovered the unashamed sense of comfort and optimism which permeates his work, and the brief, rather fragile interlude is conversely all about solidity and security. Built around his trademark toy orchestra of bells, whistles and strange devices this is short enough to possibly be overlooked as a link between tracks, but somewhere in here is the essence of Esperi and perhaps the ultimate expression of the album’s title?
Following “Homer” – familiar from the recent “Melancholics Anonymous EP” – is “Lone Wolf”. There is a touch of the wild west in its steel guitars and nods to country music. The vocal here is one of the most assured and solid on the album, with Chris‘ voice leaping dexterously around the instrumentation. The strings conspire to make the song’s themes of abandonment and wilderness all the more lonely and mournful, but everything is steadfastly anchored by sonorous string bass notes. At the centre of the record are a pair of tracks “Nevertheless 1 & 2″ which melt into each other, but are distinct parts of a whole. The first section is shorter and quieter – guitars twinkle through a drone of keyboards and Chris breathes memories into the microphone. The second part is a brighter, faster paced piece built on a solid foundation of bass and drums, full of spiralling guitar arpeggios and breathtaking time changes. Towards the conclusion the strings return, swooning, soaring and utterly lovely. The now ubiquitous loop pedal is deployed on “Cats and Dogs” but in fairness Esperi is one of few artists – perhaps alongside Adam Stafford – who is creatively using it as an instrument in its own right as opposed to an extraneous embellishment or an expensive gimmick. Again Chris celebrates his view of the animal kingdom here and as ever when he sees the world through the eyes of the creatures he loves, it becomes a charming, soaringly beautiful song full of lyrical twists and tricks which you just couldn’t get away with through the half-open, scornful eyes of a human agent.
“Hearts” is another two part effort which initially takes a more traditional tack, but allows Marr to do what he does best – turning relationships inside out and describing their complexities in simple, heartfelt terms. His gentle, half-whispered vocals and picked guitar lines show a dexterity in his songwriting which challenges the usual ‘tortured soul’ approach to the genre. What promises to be a mere instrumental coda in “Hearts 2″ is in fact a miniature Esperi-style symphony which hints at the more experimental side of Marr‘s work. This takes the central guitar theme of the first section and spins it out across a ten minute long piece of music which I’ll lazily describe as a sort of acoustic post-rock anthem. Bells and glockenspiels compete with toy wind instruments, the guitar lines circle and electronics chitter and tweet. The strings return too, and the building wash of incongruous noises is suddenly allied in a final, triumphant vocal return. Despite it’s length and it’s strangeness, this manages to hold attention to the final note.
If you believe the hype, then all the best music arises from tension, discontent and turmoil. There’s a grain of truth in that, in the sense that defiance and adversity have inspired some great art over the years. However, Esperi bucks this trend by weaving a soundtrack predominantly from simplicity, contentment and resolution. And despite the potential for this approach to a record to become over-sweetened or cloying there’s certainly nothing twee about this at all. This is a record full of self-examination and personal challenge, but where the hero comes out on top for a welcome change. Full of inventively layered sounds and lyrical brilliance, “In a Motion, Emotion, Sentiment” lives up to it’s curious name perfectly. It’s an expression of any number of love affairs – with places and people, creatures and experiences – and it reflects the work of someone not afraid to wear his heart very much on his sleeve.
Esperi‘s “In a Moment, Emotion, Sentiment” is available now as a pay-what-you-want download or a physical CD from Bandcamp. He will be appearing at Nice’N'Sleazy’s in Glasgow on 23rd August with Lovers Turn To Monsters, and Cellar 35 in Aberdeen on 24th August. You can see Esperi performing “Silo The Fire”, which gives an amazing insight into just how some of those sounds are created too.
I’ve written before about Esperi, but make absolutely no apology for once again drawing attention to this, long-anticipated new release. In fact “Melancholics Anonymous” seems to have been in preparation forever, before suddenly and almost apologetically announcing itself to the world. It’s fair to say that Esperi – whether it is indeed a band, an individual or a revolving collective of creative folks centred on Dundee-native songwriter Chris Marr – is one of the hardest working entities in Scottish music. A constant string of live dates over the past year or so paused only to allow Chris time to work with fellow troubadours Luke Joyce of I Build Collapsible Mountains and Panda Su. But this hasn’t translated into a hectic release schedule however, and this is this first music committed to record since last year’s “Esperi EP” on Olive Grove Records which essentially collected together songs which had been scattered around the internet for a while. These mixed the simple, open hearted singer-songwriter approach with more experimental washes of sound and playful instrumentals. But this all-new EP on Fall On Records finally sees the two sides of Esperi welded together. Happily the personal, human warmth remains perfectly intact, while new musical pastures are explored over the space of five delicate, heartfelt compositions.
The record opens with “Homer” which is, in many senses, trademark Esperi. A shuffling beat and a complex, jazzy bass line courtesy of the perhaps unlikely hand of Fat Goth‘s Kev Black propel the song at a surprisingly jaunty pace at odds with the title of the EP. Meanwhile Chris Marr unravels his reflective, half-spoken musings on fatherhood and parenting. After a quiet, delicate pause for handclaps and bells, Marr‘s voice is centre stage the song reveals it’s eponymous but unlikely hero. There are genuinely tender reminiscences here which vie for emotional space with the swelling, heart-bursting additon of The Korda String Quartet which provides a discrete and sympathetic addition to the track, rather than drowning the song’s spirit in strings which is always a temptation when you have musicians of this calibre on hand. The influence of the oddly and guiltily compelling show of the same name sees “Come Dine With Me” skitter in on a burst of untuned TV noise which resolves into more of Chris‘s beautifully intricate guitar picking and a wash of gentle strings. The sarcasm-drenched daytime cooking contest doesn’t have too much further influence on proceedings, beside a reference in the chorus – but this song is full of the warmth of homecoming and shared histories. This also sees the first appearance of another Esperi signature in the use of toy bells and tinkling percussion, as ever performed on improvised instruments constructed from bits of household junk. This, along with Marr‘s remarkably skilled use of a loop pedal are staples of the Esperi live set, which translate to record surprisingly well.
On “Broadlands”, the stripped down backing of just guitar and handbells allows Marr‘s lyrics to take a bolder, broader sweep. It’s brief and simple, gently and reverently detailing life-long friendship and suggesting how a time-worn connection allows people to unerringly read each other in it’s refrain “your eyes/never too hard to disguise“. It’s these interludes, short and direct, heart worn firmly on sleeve, which set Esperi apart from those who spin darker, more oblique tales. What you hear is most definitely what you get, and the song ebbs away into birdsong and countryside sounds far too soon. There is an otherworldly, dreamlike quality to “Luke” which seems to describe a much loved, sleeping dog, but in such delicate and tender detail that its impossible not to be swept up in Marr‘s strange mix of celebration and melancholy reflection. Weaving his breathy lyrical delivery around a sheen of noise and clinking, ringing percussion sounds and a quiet thunder of bass, it’s here too that his lyrics become perhaps their most touchingly descriptive with lines like “watching you sleep/is like watching a meadow/with each breath that you take/your hair ebbs and flows“. As ever, Esperi delivers those surprising, lump-in-throat moments when they’re least expected. The EP closes with “Who I Am” which is a surprisngly forthright exposition of the Esperi ethic. It’s tempting to reason that Marr is telling us exactly why he’s working so hard for his songs to be heard as he quietly but forcefully suggests “it’s in my bones/it helps me grow“. The song gradually builds with gentle drums and resounding washes and crashes of cymbal adding an oddly nautical ebb and flow to the sound. Marr‘s quiet lyrical strength is at its best here, and when the song finally breaks free in a clamour of military drums, bells and crashes, it’s liberating and illuminating in equal measure. Finally, it all dissolves into tape hiss and disappears back to Esperi‘s homegrown roots.
Once again Esperi has managed to capture the sound of hearts breaking and being reforged on this brief collection of songs which focus on passing time, love and loss, growth and change without descending into schmaltz or allowing sentimentality to get the better of them. While this EP strikes a middle ground between the song-based and experimental work which has been kept resolutely separate in the past, across the five songs here the lyrical themes couldn’t be more varied or their detail more acutely observed. There are plenty of artists ploughing the solo singer-songwriter furrow nowadays, and probably always will be – but you’ll struggle to find an artist more inventive and committed than Chris Marr.
You can download “Melancholics Anonymous” on a pay-what-you-like basis from Esperi’s Bandcamp page. The video for “Come Dine With Me” can be seen here too. Esperi will play at the Go North festival in Inverness on 6th/7th June, with more dates to be announced shortly.
There is a school of thought, not entirely unsupported I’ve noticed, that there are far too many bearded young acoustic musicians around the place just now. As a bearded, not-so-young failed musician, I’m pretty careful how far I agree with this sentiment. But while there certainly are a lot of singer-songwriters plying their trade just now who probably aren’t going to break the mould, there are some truly talented individuals among them who deserve to be heard. One such musician is Esperi, a name applied to the largely solo efforts of Chris Lee-Marr. Chris is likely one of the hardest working musicians in Scotland too, playing virtually non-stop in any venue he can find – often with equally remarkable compatriots such as RM Hubbert – and apparently just as happy to turn up and play in your living room if it means he’s getting heard. As reported here, I caught his live show in Glasgow last year, and was instantly snared by his mix of thoughtful acoustic songs and more expansive, experimental efforts. This EP puts this endless live work in context by collecting virtually all of Esperi‘s recorded output to date in a neat package alongside a couple of newer pieces.
From the very first notes of the record it’s clear that Esperi isn’t just going to be content to sling a few chords together and whine about how bad things are. Each of these songs is a miniature and considered epic – consciously designed, carefully crafted and given just the right amount of embellishment to shine. “Dialled” has a winding, almost jazz-influenced rhythm section which twists and turns through the song while light touches of the drums are barely audible under the delicate acoustic guitar playing. Chris‘ voice is clear, soft and engaging – delivering the sometimes homely and often surreal lyrics in a warm, Scottish burr. It’s a simple enough tune but it’s far from fragile, as it builds towards an epic finale – a swift change of timing and the gentle patter of drums gains a little force to support a huge swell of keyboards. As a Christmas single last year, Esperi released a brace of winter themed tracks in an absurdly limited and rather fantastic knitted cover. The first of these, “Made for Life” echoes Esperi live shows by introducing a range of other instruments including his trademark coloured plastic handbells. It includes one of those wonderful but all too rare heart-swelling moments too, when a sudden spiral of strings rise from the simple, quiet guitar backdrop and transport the song. But there is nothing over-egged or pompous here – it all fits into the warm, human world of Esperi‘s lyrics comfortably. This is likely my favourite song ever about knitwear – with apologies of course to Aidan Knight – and certainly the best song mentioning armpits currently in my collection. The companion piece is “Snowman” – a remarkably simple acoustic guitar tune, made truly wonderful mostly by the vocals, including a quiet but effective supporting voice from wife Cat too. It’s a tiny, sad lament for an impassive and ultimately melting snowman – but manages to avoid being twee or silly by having a genuinely affecting air and a tune which just won’t shift from your head.
An Esperi live performance has to be seen to be believed – but “Takkat” is possibly the closest you’re likely to get on record, as all kinds of toy instruments, loops, gentle beats and disconnected voice samples float in and out of a soundscape which is constructed around an organ drone and tinkling bells. If it sounds busy and complicated on record, it’s even more bewildering to watch in person as Chris dashes from instrument to instrument, programming and reprogramming as he moves around the stage, burrowing into his bag to seek all manner of odd things to make music with. “Takkat” is oddly addictive, complicated and clever – but threatens to be eclipsed by the EP’s awe-inspiring closing track “My Tear Dissolved The View”. When this appeared as a video earlier in the year it garnered all kinds of unexpected attention for Esperi. Taking it’s cues from post-rock but far from sticking to the formula, a simple and glacially slow melody underscores all kinds of shuffling, competing shattered sounds. An almost imperceptible guitar line hides at the back, keeping everything together as the piece shimmers and twists around itself. As Chris and Cat‘s disembodied and unstable voices appear, so the tune starts to disappear slowly into silence. This is wonderful, genuinely moving music which is full character and impact despite – indeed perhaps because – it doesn’t feature any recognisable vocal.
This EP is far from just being a collection of pre-released and now hard to find gems – it’s a little beacon of light in dark times. An honest, positive record which makes huge statements about hard work and craftsmanship – and which manages to be sometimes heartwarming and sometimes heartbreaking too. Esperi‘s music might appear simple on the surface, the attention to the tiniest details of the sounds he is creating reveal an uncompromising creativity. While this might seem too, like a record in two parts with the more experimental pieces grouped together, it genuinely does seem to form a coherent collection despite the sonic and chronological distance between the songs. This is a perfect soundtrack for the languid end-of-summer humidity, which will last long into the winter. And wherever you are, Esperi is almost certainly going to be playing near you pretty soon!
Olive Grove Records release “The EP” on 4th August as a download, CD or as a limited edition felt-covered CD. Esperi appears next at The Lexington, London on 2nd August.
I agonised over the wisdom of posting a list like this. The drawbacks were of course very apparent – I open myself to accusations of whimsy or elitism with some of my choices, or I miss out something I really liked and realise too late. However, since 2010 is the year I’ve purchased more music than for any in the preceding decade, it feels important to mark the occasion. I’ve tried to list things I’ve listened to most – because that seems like a fair test of how much impact they’ve made. This does of course miss the acts which have released less music this year but have been very much on my list – honourable mentions to White Heath and French Wives for instance. Also, there are many others just outside the top twenty who I’d love to have included – but there have to be some self-imposed rules or these things would never work.
I make absolutely no apology that this list is largely of Scottish musicians. I’ve spend an inordinate amount of the last year north of the border on a variety of trips and missions, and this has left it’s mark. Also, there is a genuinely supportive network of musicians in Scotland who, as one starts to explore, suggest and link to countless others. That this sprawling and sometimes incestuous network functions on a genuinely human scale is amazing and inspiring to me. Before I knew it, my old preferences for things Scottish had reawakened with a whole host of new talent. There are of course some remarkable artists from elsewhere around the world on the list. There is also an equally impressive network of Scottish blogs which serve this diverse scene – including Peenko, Aye Tunes and the truly inspiring Glasgow PodcART – all of which nurture and promote talent with fervour and humour.
I also make no apology about the downbeat, often acoustic bent of this selection. It’s the kind of year it’s been – and while there have been some fantastic releases by louder or more electronic acts, they’ve just not achieved the place in my heart that these have.
So, here then are the things which have inspired, delighted and consoled me during the year. Wherever possible, I’ve tried to link them to a place where you can hear the music almost straight away and completely for free. This has sometimes meant using bands’ Myspace pages – which are now rendered pretty horrible by the new platform, but at least allow access to the music. I hope there’s something in here which others find equally entrancing…
- Meursault – All Creatures Will Make Merry
- Admiral Fallow – Boots Met My Face
- Burnt Island – Music and Maths EP
- Kid Canaveral – Shouting at Wildlife
- Randolph’s Leap – Battleships and Kettle Chips EP
- Timber Timbre – Timber Timbre
- eagleowl – Into the Fold EP
- Yusuf Azak – Turn On The Long Wire
- Thirty Pounds of Bone – Method
- The Scottish Enlightenment – St. Thomas
- Esperi – Made For Life/Snowman
- And So I Watch You From Afar – The Letters EP
- The Unwinding Hours – The Unwinding Hours
- I Build Collapsible Mountains – A Month of Lost Memories
- Endor – Endor
- The Last Battle – Heart of the Land, Soul of the Sea
- Maple Leaves – Golden Ether EP
- The Savings and Loan – Today I Need Light
- Thous and Thees – Last Recordings EP
- Trevor Moss & Hannah-Lou – Trevor Moss & Hannah-Lou
It’s been a long day – and Birmingham seems like another country now. Quite a bit has happened since then in fact. I got up early, and disappeared into the bowels of New Street while it was still dark. I felt pretty grim, the usually October cold barely suppressed, and strangley nervous about the days ahead. I stake a lot on my visits to Glasgow – and sometimes expect too much.
As we emerged from the tunnels though, I knew today was going to be just a little bit exceptional. The day had dawned cold and clear, with perfect blue skies. As we sped north, through familiar territory from last week’s jaunt, I managed to settle my unease with coffee, music and the chance to really relax for the first time in a long time. I contemplated the announcement of the Comprehensive Spending Review later with some magnanimity – I’d made my predictions, but wondered if this trip might be a last fling before the belt tightened. All the more reason to make it count in one sense. No pressure then…
So fast-forwarding a little, I find myself in Macsorley’s – a corner bar near Central Station which I’d wandered by countless times on my travels. Inside, it’s tiny and the interior is like a shrine to traditional Scottish pub traditions – a U-shaped bar, surrounded by woodwork. Just dark enough to feel private, just busy enough to feel comfortable. I was immediately at home. It was interesting to study the customers – a mixture of town centre types, out for an early drink, and those here for the entertainment – a more mixed bunch, lots of knitwear and the inimitable Glasgow style. In the corner, big Jim Gellatly appeared to be conversing with a lost Kray triplet. I felt instantly at home, found my corner and settled in.
First up was Cristin Mackenzie from the Isle of Lewis. His gentle songs were carried above and beyond the bar chatter by way of his colleague who deployed a range of instruments, from whistles to what appeared to be Northumbrian Pipes. Occasionally, his voice too soared high above the background noise, which unfortunately prevented him from being heard fully. A talented young guy with lots of local support in Glasgow. A real pleasure to hear him.
Next up was Sarah Banjo – a recent discovery for me, and someone I really wanted to see perform. She started out, an alluring and unassuming shamble of clothes and glasses at the front of the room, before very suddenly, a high clear voice soared. There was something about her phrasing, her use of repetition and the construction of her songs which made me think of Olympia and K Records – Lois and Mecca Normal. But her use of guitar and banjo brought the music effortlessly back to it’s Scottish roots in that rare pool of talent, Anstruther. She also practically refused to stop playing, which is always a good thing in my book. Part way through the set she switched from a quietly strummed guitar to a more robust and eponymous banjo. A remarkable set which lived up to all my expectations.
And so, to Esperi – perhaps the artist I knew most about on tonights bill. His recordings are careful, fragile things which threaten to dissolve like ancient wax cylinders. Live, it’s quite remarkable to see how these tiny works of genius are created. He flits from instrument to instrument, setting up a loop from live sounds. The microphones are moved, and impossible toys are produced from his bag. Tiny whistling sea horses, bells and whistles. Over all of this, his quiet voice weaves gentle songs. I’m glad I got to see this because the performance is so much part of the sound. A remarkable talent.
So, as I trudged down Argyle Street in the inevitable rain, I reasoned that today turned out pretty well, despite my reservations. It’s good to be back.