Robin Guthrie

Robin Guthrie

Imperial

Bella Union

If wise old wolves prowled the seaside of Scotland strumming guitars at dusk, this is how it would sound.

I always heard a lot more about Cocteau Twins, the lyrical group which guitarist Robin Guthrie founded in 1979, than I actually heard them (though “Bluebeard” is very nice). However, I like Violet Indiana, the duo Guthrie formed with Siobhan de Mare after Cocteau Twins broke up quite a bit.

Guthrie’s staked out a definite piece of ground for himself through all incarnations, it seems, a consistency of mood that rings out like thoughts rising through a haze. When paired with singers like de Mare or Cocteau’s Elizabeth Fraser, those thoughts find form, expression, and attachment. On his own, Guthrie lets the music do the talking, and how does it sound? Like surf music for a cold day with the water gradually warming.

The breath of life colors these songs. But for their titles, such wordless tracks leave their meanings as question marks for the listener to supply. However, separating Guthrie’s music from any lyrical vision also lets it retain its purity while adding an extra note of innocence. If to be sophisticated means to be impure or adulterated, Imperial is unsophisticated in the best sense of the word. Yet it is also mature.

This music casts a thoughtful spell that deeper enchants the heart the more times it spins. It’s likely Guthrie has earned himself another place on my list of Music Of The Year (imagine his delight). I don’t know why I didn’t listen to this guy more when I was 17 (answer: You were listening to INXS. Not that there’s anything wrong with that).

It’s not a collection of Violet Indiana backing tracks, but allows a more focused listen to Guthrie’s way of hearing. Little of the music here seems to need words (although I wouldn’t mind hearing a lyric for “Falling From Grace”). “Music For Labour” is heartbreaking without your knowing quite how it accomplished that effect (or whether its meant for the delivery room or as a political statement).

No doubt it’s because I recently reviewed Tony Bennett’s live DVD, but Guthrie’s playing reminds me of Bennett’s approach to singing. No matter how many times Bennett has sung the same words, he always tries to perform as though he is just thinking of them for the first time. Guthrie’s delicate, artful guitar feels as though he has just sat down and decided to play, and this is what came out. Yet you know that’s extremely unlikely.

When I saw Violet Indiana in Seattle last year, someone in the audience kept begging Guthrie to play a drifting solo — even offering to get him high first. People like that are likely to love this music, which drifts so hazily it could almost go undetected. For all I know, Guthrie was so high when he recorded this he was on the roof. But you don’t got to be sad to play the blues (John Lee Hooker, 1984). And you don’t have to be high to play or enjoy music with a certain familiar scent (Dean Martin didn’t drink as much as he acted, either). You just have to have an imagination to use and a heart to break. Okay?

Bella Union Records: http://www.bellaunion.com/

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