Music Reviews
The Instruments

The Instruments

Dark Smaland

Orange Twin Records

Elephant 6 conspirator and free spirit cellist Heather McIntosh has somewhat sated her wanderlust after performing with an inestimable amount of “alternative” leading lights – among them Japancakes, Kevin Ayers and Elf Power – and has dug her heels in to follow her own mysterious muse. Gathering together core players and fellow travelers (drummer) Eric Harris, and (guitarist) Derek Almstead along with assists from members of Elf Power and Neutral Milk Hotel, she’s crafted an absolutely fucking beguiling record in Dark Smaland

The Instruments create a rich, lush and almost elegant sound owing to Nico and Vashti Bunyan, with touches of Eric Matthews and the mantric dreaminess of Spacemen 3. The tunes are mantric and repetitive, slightly out of focus and off-kilter but the arrangements are never anything less than elegant and shimmering. Here, cello is used as a lead instrument instead of simply a dash of seasoning, check out the emotive lead lines on instrumental “Pastorale” – the arrangements are gothic (not in the way you’re thinking), eastern hallucinatory and chamber music baroque, all within the same song, but the sound is warm, woodsy and communal.

“Ode to the Sea” is a deliciously woozy sea shanty; miles away from the shambolic indie rock of her erstwhile Elephant 6 peers, this is instead elegantly composed and dizzily wrongfooted. Cello, guitar, massed voices repeat one prayerful verse over and over again, like Olde English folk combined with the Velvet Underground. “Sounds Electric” with its spry hummingbird drum-and-bass rhythms (reminding me of a gentle Minutemen) and buzzing keyboards alongside multitracked vocals rising and falling at odds with the music calls to mind the Residents and the nimble, spidery Slint. The ad hoc musical arrangements and partnerships bear gorgeous fruit on the doleful Sadie Hawkins Dance country loveliness of “Mountain Song.” Over liquid guitars and slowly crashing cymbals, McIntosh repeats an entincing, “Hey boy will you marry me above the old willow tree” over and over and over.

The foreboding, imperious “Cello Ballad” – indebted to the teutonic darkness of Nico’s “Janitor of Lunacy” and “Frozen Warnings” – is a thing of darkling beauty, a song that feels like it never fully starts, cello and horns seesawing uneasily back and forth. One imagines John Cale as a lighthouse keeper, clad in a Dracula cape, nodding his head approvingly at this frosty storm of sound, even as the voices take on a more European and incantatory tone. “Early Lights” is a grand swooning, old-world waltz, illuminated by pings of electric guitar, fluttering cello and rich piano chords with McIntosh doing her best Nico – but a Nico in thrall to the gentle rhythms of nature instead of New York’s temptations.

Diverse and brave, the Instruments explore songforms not usually tried out by a lot of “indie” or “underground” bands while single-mindedly following one woman’s restless muse. Dark Smaland is timeless music that would feel just as fresh as it would if I were putting this on my turntable in 1976 after reading about it in Creem Magazine or checking out a track today posted on some blog or other. I’m glad for it.

Orange Twin:

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