A Depth Of Leaves

Today’s pic introduces the marvellous Dorothy Annan ceramic mural that once adorned the London Central Telegraph Office, now sensitively re-housed in the Barbican (most of her other public murals have now been lost or destroyed, a fate which nearly overtook this one). Over nine stoneware panels, each inspired by aerials, pylons and telegraph poles (a bit like Hood’s cover art), this is a grand piece of 1960s modernism well worth wandering to, if you’re ever in these parts.

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Random flashback time again. It’s 1995, and the home counties are going mad for Britpop: either Blur’s retro vision of cheeky chappies on Carnaby, or Oasis’s retro vision of a pre-punk Mancunian street pop, fuelled by swagger and scowls. But there is more to the unfolding musical skyline than the idiot joy showlands of London and Manchester: the perpetually unfashionable Midlands lie geographically between those cities and, just as the region once defied the pop mainstream to give birth to metal and most of its myriad subgenres, it would now react against a self-satisfied zeitgeist once more.

And so it came to pass that the fledgling Downwards imprint set up a one-off sub label, Resonance, to release a darkly danceable 12” EP by the mysterious Fret. Fret turned out to be an alias of one Mick Harris who, at the time, may still have been best known as the one-time drummer of one of Britain's greatest ever bands, Napalm Death (before he left that ever-morphing DM powerhouse to indulge a newfound love of loops and blackened dancefloors). Even before Fret, though, he had already issued three albums in three years as one half of the mighty Scorn, alongside fellow Napalm refugee Nik Bullen. And Mick would remain pleasingly prolific during the 1990s, spending much of them issuing drum and bass, ambient, industrial, breaks or dubstep records (or combinations of all five, depending on his mood) under a host of different names and in collaboration with a shopping list of other artists ranging from Bill Laswell to Eraldo Bernocchi. However, the EP would prove to be his only release as Fret. Or so it seemed. 

Twenty-two years on, Downwards is firmly established as a top-drawer Birmingham label (right up there with 021), and Mick Harris is solidly ensconced in Midlands musical folklore as originator, reinventor or perfector of a wealth of electronic & instrumental subgenres. And as the English autumn sweeps briskly into sight, we find ourselves hailing a brand new Fret release, a whole hour’s worth of album via Berlin's Karlrecords, cruelly limited to 500 vinyl copies. “Over Depth” pays ample testament to Birmingham’s status as a happy home for music that is crushing, heavy and extreme: but as you would expect from Harris (check out his Lull project, if you want to sample production brilliance at the other end of the sonic scale) its textures are fluid, its ambition untrammelled, its execution deft and its craftsmanship undeniable.

There is so much going on in the mix, with so few safe footholds for the less than intrepid, that by rights, the result should be no more than an ugly, if spirited, mess. But somehow, this selection is as relentless yet as rewarding as “Descension”, or “As The Veneer Of Democracy Starts To Fade” or other such undersung but still-ripe fruits of the unloved provinces. In places the music hints of other local titans like Regis or Surgeon or JK Flesh (yet another ex-Napalm Death escapee, of course), but without ever neglecting either atmosphere, or sheer weight of sound. The percussive punch and parry of the two discs would grace Osaka’s Local Sound Network, whilst its clattering echo-dub effects pay abstruse homage to Birmingham’s roots pioneers; distantly evoke the genius of “Bun Dem”. And that’s even before the Mariana-depth bass drops start to shake your boots.

If truth be told, a few tracks do peek from frazzled parapets more than others (the demented slaughterhouse jazz trumpet on “Murderous Weight”, the choral ghost-chapel shimmer of “No Rain”, the industrial whalesong and foghorn of “Stuck In The Track At Salford Priors”, or the lurching repetition of the murky-sounding “Lifford Res”) but the key to our love for this album is its strength as a whole. It’s an LP that instantly connects, and from then on just burrows further into your psyche.

Perhaps the most delicious thing of all, though, is that this is a record with an surprisingly prosaic secret inspiration… carp fishing. It doesn’t take much googling to discern that at least half the track names concern Fret’s favoured angling venues, tech or technique. So even if you somehow don’t warm to “Over Depth”’s stubborn chaos, you can’t deny that it’s the best fishing-inspired record in the history of bass music.

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Clearly, you can’t outmuscle “Over Depth” from the turntable. You can only seek to match it, to coax it from hogging the headphones, by focusing on different qualities altogether. To go all Chelsea on you for a sec, you have to be Pat Nevin instead of Micky Droy, the King's Road instead of the Shed End. And thus we turn to “Other Towns Than Ours”, the debut LP by Last Leaves, which provides a different avenue for our reverie.

For it was also 1995 when an outfit from Victoria called the Lucksmiths released their first album, “The Green Bicycle Case”, a record we finally got hold of a few years later from Melbourne’s own Gaslight Music, en route from a fry-up in Albert Park to a quick pint in the Elephant. Yes, just as the Sarah Records flame was being snuffed out here in the UK, a new pristine pop band to die for had popped up on the other side of the globe. And, as you’ll know, they went on to conquer the world. Well, to conquer our world, and to tour the real world, and to grace the planet’s finest independent labels with shimmeringly ace records.

Twenty-two years on, and too many summers already since the Lucksmiths – in their time, just as prolific as Mick Harris - sadly played their last show, two of the fresh-faced trio who smiled out from the “Bicycle Case” sleeve (‘Martin’ Donald and Mark Monnone) return, with latterday Lucksmith Louis Richter and drummer Noah Symons (who collaborated with Richard Adams and Jason Sweeney's rather fantastic Great Panoptique project). The new combo, Last Leaves, are every inch the band you’d expect them to be: after all, this is a joint release from Lost & Lonesome and Matinée Recordings, who have pretty discerning tastes.

We are bound to admit to you that a part of us would have been quite happy for Last Leaves merely to have picked up where the ‘smiths left off, just as – since we’re in confessional mode – we once yearned for the Steinbecks merely to revisit the past glories of the Sugargliders. Yet, just as we learned to let the Meadows brothers take us on new journeys in their second incarnation, so we now give thanks and praise that Last Leaves look to build on past legacies, but to give them new twists and dynamics, on their first long-player "Other Towns Than Ours".

This fabulous LP sets stories and vignettes to verse: tales of drives to satellite towns and hidden motels, tales of stealing away and stolen glances, tales of the past as a trove of memories that should never be wallowed in, only visited in moderation. Musically, “Other Towns...” casts its net far and wide: the muscular power pop of “The World We Had”, the sultry 7” “The Hinterland”, or the absurdly ace “Something Falls”, a song so positive, passionate and persuasive that had they only committed it to 45 it would have been Single Of The Year, without the shadow of a doubt… and as the album passes, moods change with the scenery as melodic pop stanzas flit with spirals of guitar, slowed-down bass and drum passages and widescreen ballads.

Essentially, you should love this sincere, sweetly-honed record if you fell for any of the great alternative pop bands of recent decades (insert your own list here, although the supernovae we’d nominate might include the Butterflies of Love, Math & Physics, recent Wedding Present, the Go-Betweens - who get a respectful namecheck on “The Last Of The Light” - and, yes, the Lucksmiths). This is a record that helps inculcate us into our favourite season, to soundtrack the leaf fall and the grass dew and the early-morning condensation that fogs the window panes. That, in itself, is worth treasuring.