When an album comes in a sleeve with wonderful artwork but containing no information other than track names, and the distributor’s promo sheet is equally enigmatic about the who, the where, and the how, one can choose: either to dig and delve and google and goggle, or to decide to respect the clear wishes of the artists concerned that they be enigmatic and anonymous and that the music should just speak for itself.
(A lot of musicians, at some point in their careers, decide that they just want the music to speak for itself, but then their managers start to hint that a few kind words from the NME might help things along a bit – but that’s so off-topic …)
So I did the former (well, what did you expect) and shall abide by the latter (nyah).
I wasn’t amongst those who went potty about The Boats’ debut album – Songs By The Sea – released on the tiny but perfectly formed Moteer label in 2004: I found it charming but bland – Mùm translated to Burnley and bloated with Tizer and chips. But We Made It For You is different.
It’s been a good year for the superannuated piano – both Goldmund in the States and Hauschka in Germany have released great albums that unlock the potential of the dead and untuneable string, the creaking pedal, the dodgy hammer. There’s an automatic assignation of nostalgia to that sound – everyone’s felt the shiver in the nape when they’ve lifted the lid on the woodwormy upright at the back of the village hall and played a few chords – the fluttering of ghostly wings in the collective unconscious. We Made It For You taps directly into this effect, setting the piano dead-centre in the mix, repeating a sparse set of minimalist riffs in a theme and variations kind of way, but then feeding in an array of seriously subtle sotto voce electronic beats and glitchy embellishments that work like an acoustic fog-machine, shrouding the whole thing in a finely-wrought cinematic mist.
The theme upon which these variations are based seems simply to be friendship: each of the twelve variations on the same piano song is a named dedication – Sarah Alice, Annabel, Darren, Jonathan and Rob, etc – so you can’t help listening for a character vignette as the album proceeds. This doesn’t remotely work – unless it happens to be the case that everyone on The Boats’ Christmas card list can be summed up as melancholic, dreamy, lovely, and a bit skittish – but that doesn’t really matter, because where The Boats are taking us in We Made It For You is somewhere offshore and tangential where we can look back through the distorting sea-fret to the idea of friendship and apply that to our own versions of Sarah Alice, Annabel, Darren, or whoever. In the wrong hands, this would risk a nasty scraping on the fatal reef of kitsch, but The Boats manage to steer a steady course that both avoids this and allows plenty of space for personal reflection as the album unfolds, and the result is as warm and reviving as a shared hot toddy after a frosty night’s carol singing.