Saturday, 15 August 2020

Lovesong: The Bathers: The Marina Trilogy


The Bathers: The Marina Trilogy

Lagoon Blues · Sunpowder · Kelvingrove Baby

A re-issue of the three, long out of print albums that Chris Thomson's band The Bathers released in the 90s on the German label Marina.
Vinyl & CD: Released 23 October, 2020

Available to pre-order here

I have followed Chris Thomson's music from the off. Friends Again's 'Trapped and Unwrapped' (1984) was a fine debut. It mined a similar vein to Roddy Frame's Aztec Camera and that was good enough for me. When they split in 1985 I'd heard that Chris had formed a band as a vehicle for his idiosyncratic stylings. I remember buying the first album 'Unusual Places to Die' in 1987 and was intrigued, although a little unsure of the ramshackle musicality. 1990s 'Sweet Deceit' was a step in the right direction for me, but I was still not overwhelmed. And then the band signed to German label Marina and the stars seemed to align. 

"A heightened sense of romanticism was part and parcel of those songs and recordings. At times the lines became blurred, as they tend to do. That exploration of those shadowy regions yields much beauty."  
Chris Thomson  August 2020

Listening to Chris Thomson’s music can be a little overwhelming. It is an investment for sure, but there’s labour involved. It’s a journey that you are required to surrender to. It has to be a personal engagement: you have to take Chris on. His is a dizzy dance: one moment stately, jittery the next, but one that leaves you breathlessly elated. You are often reduced to mirroring uncertain, fragmented steps. My reactions are abstract, emotional. I try to find meaning but, as I struggle to focus, I'm moved along apace. It’s a bit like jogging through the rooms of a lofty art gallery whilst wearing your Mum’s glasses: the eye never quite settles. It’s a gentle pace for sure: the music is dark and strangely exotic, otherworldly. It’s all about love of course: a lush, intoxicating romanticism that elicits a giddy reaction, as you voyeuristically view half-revealed moments. Thomson’s muse is cinematic, operatic, impressionistic: you are challenged to decipher the opulent imagery, the fanciful conceits, the half whispered, unfinished sentences. It evokes rather than details, although sometimes the details are telling. But telling what? You are reduced to grasping at glimpses, sneaking snatched impressions: of the torment of unrequited love, of kisses un-kissed, of the musty musk of yesterday’s sheets; of the veiled promise of a moonlit tryst. There’s lots of movement, often towards gothic destinations, usually on the wings of desire, despair, or an old love song. These are not confessionals though: there's mischief afoot. It is clear that Thomson has created a persona to inhabit the lush, theatrical backdrops that couch his concerns. There is however a sure sense of 'self' in the flesh that he puts on his hero's bones. Lines blur between fact and fiction: Chris is surely investing the script with his own hard earned wisdom. His champion becomes ours: an exemplar of romantic virtue. We are swept along, essentially taken for a ride. That you commit unquestioningly to his journey is a sure sign of a confident craftsmen: so convincingly does he inhabit his imagined world. The man himself admits that "... a heightened sense of romanticism was part and parcel of those songs and recordings. At times the lines became blurred, as they tend to do." We come to see 'the artist' as the man: a further indication that Thomson plays his part well. And so it becomes almost impossible to listen to the songs without accepting them at face value: and that face is Thomson's. And you can't help but root for him 

Our protagonist is dissolute; potentially profligate, certainly rakish. Pleasured, pained, frustrated and seldom satiated. Heroic but unenviable, erudite but seemingly unbalanced: found yet flailing; giddy and unsettled by his adventures. You find yourself lost in a hinterland of what's real and imagined. But what wondrous perplexity! When it comes to brow furrowed romantic rumination, even stumbling, Thomson is virtually peerless. And his peers? Tom Waits’ lust is earthier, Leonard Cohen’s more grounded. For me Thomson shares much of Nick Cave’s libertinism. Cave’s desires are more tangible, flesh made real; potential conquests caught confidently in his cross hairs. His challenges are rationalized, his impulses controlled. Thomson seems less confident of his quest, intent on serenity but less sure of the source of desire. And yet that flailing intensifies his adventure: the ardor increases, triggering a desperate pursuit for more of that elusive pleasure… Desire and fulfillment are seldom happy bedfellows. Perhaps that’s the crux of Thomson’s dilemma: the unfulfilled hope, the unrealized ambition. It’s familiar fodder for songwriters. Tom Waits famously told us that “The obsession's in the chasing and not the apprehending. The pursuit, you see, and never the arrest.”

Back footed and reticent, Thomson’s plight is less harmonious, more beguiling, shrouded by uncertainty. I listen hard, desperate to understand, but destined to be kept in the dark. I’m reminded of when, as a child, I read by torchlight under sheets. The words seemed weightier, their meaning more intense. That sensory overload added to the giddy appreciation, but didn’t necessarily result in understanding. Whether this is pretension or artful ambition depends upon your mood or your appetite. This intoxicating music renders me drowsy, makes me taste dark, bitter chocolate. That Thomson’s reach exceeds his grasp speaks volumes of his unfettered ambition. His vision remains singular, untethered to the lexicon of rock and roll. Strewth! I hope you’re still with me? Apologies if this seems over-written. Writing about The Bathers is about as challenging as listening to them. 

And so, to the albums. ‘The Marina Trilogy’. 
The three, long out of print albums that The Bathers released under the patronage of German label Marina during the 1990s. It’s unfathomable that this is their first ever printing on vinyl. This music seem conceived, created and designed for that format. I’m happy to report that the platters are flat, noiseless and beautifully syrupy. 
Trying to describe the music is a challenge: one that might be beyond me but I'm keen to give it a go. I think it best to initially consider Thomson's broad intention for his musical escapades. He recently told me "that exploration of those shadowy regions yields much beauty."  And it surely does. It's a thrilling adventure, one that I'm happy to join him on.
Dim the lights, fill my glass, I’m going in…

Lagoon Blues (1993)













Interestingly, this album was completed as 'a speculative venture' before Marina became involved. Once they had heard the mixes they were convinced to put their weight behind the album. This is a definite development from the first two Bathers albums. With all of the building blocks now in place, there is a sense of the flexing of muscles: an excitement at the possibilities of this new format. The woozy, languid arrangements are sumptuosly velveteen: the cryptic narratives strangely unsettling; the fragmented montages almost Brechtian in spirit. And yet you are swept along, because it would seem indecent to break the spell. The songs are informed by the sweet and sweaty perfume of passion. The arrangements bewilderingly baroque, loose, almost adlibbed. There’s not a whiff of Caledonia. The songs are awash with European reference: Mahler, Bergman, sultry Italian summers, Grand Hotels, French gowns. Cupid takes aim, misses, takes aim again. And again. Unrequited love abounds. The indulgence is almost indecent. Christ knows what Marina's commercial expectations were. The most radio friendly cut ‘Ave the Leopards’ proclaims: “Ave Little Mamma, meet me at the fountain tonight. Bring your Egyptian pistols and blast them in the cool of the night… Mind me when mischief finds me, from the cruel and the vain.” A call to arms as such, but a call that I’m not sure Radio 1 would’ve returned.

Sunpowder (1995)













Co-produced by Thomson with Keith Mitchell, a newly formed band endorsed the Bathers’ sophisticated formula: a unique blend: let’s call it ‘chamber jazz folk’. The burgeoning relationship with Marina had given the band a fresh confidence. This was a step forward: ever ambitious but musically more assured, likely because the line-up had become more established. Guest vocals from ex Cocteau Twin Liz Frazer added an ethereal foil for Thomson’s tormented, earthier concerns: fixing on ‘love’s power’, the church chords always seem to lead to the boudoir. ‘Tonight we have nothing left to prove… to feel love, to feel alive… and to know that once again we will surrender to love.” The accumulative lushness is akin to taking a mouthful of pear drops and, 5 minutes later washing them down with a healthy dose of Channel No 5. Yet another sensual overload then. ‘DelFt’ is a song so delicately fragile that I daren’t breath until, at the death, Thomson tellingly murmured “If I could just be the one”. The details are delicious. His beloved is faithless, nameless, shameless, unchained. And she holds ‘a little black book on jazz’. One minute stage centre, the next whispering with the chorus downstage, laconic, yet intent, Thomson brings a Prospero like mischief to the proceedings. Love' rough magic: he still cannot quantify its baseless fabric: the object of his love remains lost or just out of reach; the malaise and cure perfectly captured in an unusually direct line from ‘For Saskia’: “I couldn’t keep you for too long, but I can keep you in a song, forever young… forever in a dream.”

Even though adrift, Chris seems closer to ‘home’, the injuries more local, he remains disoriented, loss and loneliness still inform the songs. In ‘Weem Rock Muse’ he’s “... lost in the Scottish mountains. Alone in the Scottish mists”. He’s haunted by the ‘lost brown eyed Scottish girl’ of ‘She’s Gone Forever’. And finally, devastatingly, he’s cast astray in the desolate conclusion of ‘The Dutch Venus’: ‘There’s nothing left to trust. Everything is lost.” Champion or chump? Thomson's gallant hero might be a fool for love, forever putting his face to the pie, doomed to repeat the same mistakes, but has the arc of despair ever been rendered quite so beautifully?

Kelvingrove Baby (1997)













The expanded band line up that shaped ‘Sunpowder’ reconvened to make what would be The Bathers’ final record with Marina. The rhythm section was still unresolved: duties shared between bassists Sam Loup, Douglas MacIntyre and Ken McHugh vied with drummers Hazel Morrison and James Locke. Guitarist Colin McIlroy was joined by accordionist, pianist Carlo Scattini, organist Fermina Haze, augmented by the strings of Ian White and Mark Wilson. Love and Money’s James Grant and Del Amitri’s Justin Currie fleshed out the backing vocals.

Our man is still world weary, troubled, but here he seems more focussed on his foibles. We are offered snapshots rather than fleeting images. He catches things square on, rather than from the corner of his eye. It is all the more engaging for that. Our capture and commitment makes for an easier engagement than previously. Thomson's foil appears to have resolved a few of his issues, although he's forever fated to struggle with detailing, let alone defining, love’s mysteries. Less impressionistic: more assured, where love was once unrequited, there was now a girlfriend: something that initially gives the album an almost celebratory feel.
“Isn’t she fine? Positively the sweetest of her kind.” 
In that moment, you kind of want to throw your hat in the air and give the guy a great big hug. He remains hopeful of retaining that love in what might be his most beloved song, ‘If Love Could Last Forever’. But for me the highpoint of the album is the title track. ‘Kelvingrove Baby’. Unsurprisingly it is unashamedly romantic: “If I could reach you I would walk all night to hold you in the racing dawn”.
And then, line of lines, moment of moments, as the song rushes towards its thrilling climax, Thomson asserts:
When you girl looks at you
Yes when she sighs
When she moves beside you
You want the moment
Touched with magic
And immortality
You want rain
You want soft music
And the last words to be about love.

It is a transcendent, celebratory, chicken skin moment that I’d recommend to the hardest heart. The intoxicating vagaries of desire distilled into a single beat. It reminds us why we love music: it takes the mundane and somehow, miraculously renders it holy. The holy held: the unobtainable grasped. It is more than just a ‘connection’, it feels more like a communion. A joyous, hopeful moment to remind us that we are all connected: as much by our defeats as by our victories, and that, however fleeting, that moment needs to be marked. That generosity is positively elevating. The finale of this song alone made me love the album. 'Kelvingrove Baby' feels like the conclusion of the record but only ends side 1. Flipside there’s a more prosaic joy in ‘Dial’. “There’s nothing quite as sweet, kicking off your shoes in the sand”. But then, as the album slips gracefully towards conclusion, you feel a mournful sense of slippage, as though a spell has been broken. The Keatsian conceit is that beauty is transient. Similarly, Thomson is recognising the impermanence of acquisition: reminded that defeat follows victory as surely as night follows day. You begin to wonder whether the ‘girlfriend’ is flesh or fantasy, a figment of a hopeful heart. Our principal is laid bare, vulnerable, earthbound; languorously concluding ‘I was not born to fly’. 
The album concludes with ‘Twelve’.
Yes I love you
Until the orchids
Forget to bloom
Yes I love you
Until the roses
Lose their perfume
Yes I love you
Until the poets
Run out of rhyme
Yes I love you
Until the twelfth of never
And, baby, you know that’s
Such a long, long time


In lesser hands the sentiment could be sweet, saccharine, valentine card trite. As a sign-off from an artist who is more often lost than found, the effect is heart-swellingly moving. Thomson lays himself open: his dignified croon straining, struggling. It speaks more about the healing powers of love than the injuries of loss. Victories and defeats are our daily bread. Somehow, miraculously, Thomson serves them up as manna from heaven.

‘Kelvingrove Baby’ is certainly The Bathers' most coherent album to date. One that many consider Chris Thomson’s masterpiece. I can but agree. It deserves to be held in the same esteem as The Blue Nile's 'Hats'. I can't think of a higher compliment. I can also confidently attest to the accumulative effect of the music on these three albums. With each release, The Bathers got better. 

The Marina Trilogy deserves to sit atop the highest pedestal. Like much worthy art, it often willfully disguises intention, challenging you to find meaning. Perhaps ‘understanding’ is not pivotal here. Why try to demystify? Why sacrifice magic for meaning? Maybe all that’s required is willing. You do have to be up for the challenge. Best not to look too long or think too hard. Best not to attempt to decode the veiled messages: they’re often too lateral to be taken literally. Best to surrender to Thomson’s vulnerable charms and admire his ambitious devotion, then douse yourself in the vagaries of his intent. Best to steep yourself in the kindred sorrows and, dare I say, wallow in the recognitions. Better; to celebrate the brief sojourns and then marinade in the melancholy of their loss. Better still, to simply immerse yourself in Chris Thomson’s brave, bold and beautiful quest for betterment. But please, don’t just dip your toe, this is music to bathe in.


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