Not so long ago, a one-man band was a bloke busking outside Sloane Square tube station with a tatty bowler hat, a pair of cymbals buckled between his legs, a drum strapped to his back, a banjo slung round his neck, a mouth-organ supported in front of his mouth by a twisted coat-hanger thingy (Dylan adopted this), and the whole clattering mess animated by his own ingenuity and a few bits of string. Invariably the noise he made was terrible but worth a few pence chucked into the hat for the spectacle alone.
Chris Cole aka Manyfingers is a one-man band of a somewhat more evolved hue, but still, basically, it’s just him between you and the music, and, unless you had such a repository of wit and wisdom as me (hah!) to assure you about that, you’d be forgiven for finding that a bit hard to believe as a track that begins with a solitary plucked Finnish kantele gradually acquires enough attendant instrumentals to equip a small eccentric orchestra (we all have our particular musico-erogenous zones: for me, anything with a cello in it gets a disproportionate amount of critical leeway).
In between the likes of the man in the bowler hat and the multi-instrumental munchiness of Manyfingers hovers the marvel that is Tubular Bells, of course – that one-hit 1973 enduring vinyl wonder of Mike Oldfield’s that, for all its 24-channel analogue clunkiness, remains the benchmark of a certain sort of multi-layered one-man compositionship. I’ve no doubt there’s a copy on Mr Coles shelf somewhere. Although the resemblance to Our Worn Shadow is as remote as that between you and me and the men and women of Olduvai Gorge, the one wouldn’t have happened without the other.
Chris Cole is an alumnus of that tiny, short-lived but influential little Bristol label, Planet Records, which, moving in a quite different orbit from that contemporaneous Bristolian trip hop heavyweight trio (Massive Attack, Tricky, Portishead) nurtured such ongoing planetoids as Third Eye Foundation, Flying Saucer Attack, Hood, Movietone, and Crescent. Cole’s involvement, in different ways, with each of these, and his continuing touring relationship with Matt Elliott (Third Eye Foundation) has clearly had an effect, although it’s hard to pin any obvious influence from any of these on what is clearly a unique personal take on music-making. That take includes a refreshingly careless-verging-on-rapturous disregard of the perennial live/laptop limitations: whereas the début mini-album – Manyfingers – released in 2003 on Moteer, included only one track – Ballybane – which was performable live, this one doesn’t include any that don’t occur in the current touring playlist (which makes for a very animated live set, as Coles only permits himself samples of his piano and Philicorda and an eight-track mixer on tour).
It’s not an exclusively instrumental album – the inclusion of a softly double-tracked female voice on For Measured Shores (what is she singing? it sounds like “the time I paid for measured shores”, which is wonderful, if weird), a few children shouting something unintelligible on A Remark and the same female voice repeating “my worn shadow” on the title track lends a particular piquancy to what is already an engagingly detached take on a sort of careworn, frayed melancholy. This is music that’s been around the block a few times and earnt the right, for example, to introduce the final track – Tsunami – with a dark quote from Beethoven’s Funeral March that in less confident hands would have been excruciatingly kitsch and inept, but which proceeds into something as dignified and respectful as it is sad (and, quite properly, rather frightening). A dark closer from a complex and enigmatic musician who’s hit the ground running and produced one of the outstanding albums of 2006.