Hailing from Northern Ireland, but currently residing in Berlin, the under-rated AIDAN BARTLEY has quietly been sliding masterpieces into the marketplace since 1997 and creating whispers via support slots for the respected likes of Robyn Hitchcock, Tindersticks and Billy Bragg. He’s recently ventured to Australia and played a well-received Spanish tour on the back of his recent album “Vaudeville”, but for the time being let’s concentrate on Bartley’s third, the excellent “Listen To The Soundwaves” from 2003.
Finally balanced between dignified, emotive songs and evocative instrumentals, the material is based primarily around Bartley’s piano and stirring, but subtle and sparing strings. It’s opulent and sometimes rich, yet while it’s perhaps a little too austere to be described as ‘lush’ that’s not a problem as the arrangements are all pretty much spot-on, Bartley’s vocals are intimate and close-miked without ever sounding too sentimental and the production is careful and elegant.
The stately opening track “Lonely Planet” gives you some idea what to expect. Built around trembling piano, vibes and nervous drums, it recalls Nick Cave and the Tindersticks (roughly circa their second album) before ending in a majestic string serenade. It’s an excellent start and built on by “Lament”: another affecting torch-pop song which apparently deals with loss and homesickness (“a final call to go, that’s you on your own now/ only passengers allowed beyond this point”) and slips in a reference to Bartley’s Northern Irish past (“and by the way, it snowed all down the Mourne last night”) along the way.
The album is dissected by a series of evocative, memorable instrumentals which reek of atmosphere and cinema, but never sound like mere filler. “Tango” has tinkly glockenspiels, rippling piano, gentle nods to Michael Nyman and David Arnold and breaks into the occasional playful Mittel-Europa tango sections the title suggests; “Las Olas” makes like Calexico scoring Berthold Brecht and the excellent “Bogart” finds Sanja Fister’s vibes taking centre stage and Schnorre Schwarz’s jazzy drumming almost syncopted enough to be described as ‘junglist’.
Ultimately, though, it’s Bartley’s songs that really haul you in and there’s always plenty on offer to intrigue as “Listen To The Soundwaves” gradually unfolds. Songs like “Holy Grail” bring a subtle, patient performance from the band and Aidan’s voice recalls the weary intimacy Peter Hammill achieved circa the worn, but pretty elements of “Nadir’s Big Chance”; the harmonium-led “Salutation Street” is understated and almost hymnal and (arguably this writer’s favourite track) “Night Train” is a beautifully-observed comment on the transient nature of both travel and life in general (“a dozen towns since daylight broke/ a thousand glimpses of other lives”) which even recalls Talk Talk before the band make a determined entrance.
Aidan Bartley’s music is riddled with enigma and atmosphere, yet always remains warm and human. He can be melancholic, romantic or haunting, yet he always convinces. We’ll be attending his “Vaudeville” shortly, but for starters I’d suggest you “Listen To The Soundwaves” very closely indeed.