Postmodern Rock's Matthew Jennings (Jell) has been around for several years as a productive and original artist. "Postmodern Rock" is not a bad label, given the range, eclecticism and scholarly qualities of what he does. Even so, Jell's postmodern rock has a stronger functional consistency, a cleaner precision than the term suggests. If you have even a passing interest in the development of popular music since the early 1980s you are going to be able to connect with this album straight away: it's a charmer, an object lesson in density and restraint with hundreds of fresh ideas and nuanced recollections, none of them overdone.
There are hints of Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, Erasure, Flaming Lips, Blaine Reininger, Talking Heads, Hot Chip and Grandaddy's "Under The Western Freeway". Clearly, it is not all 80s and it is not obviously retro. In the opening song we get an introduction the exotic and delicate sound of a guzheng . This is an ancient Chinese zither-like instrument that recurs as a theme throughout the album. It appears on seven of the twelve tracks and helps to define the whole work. Jennings found his guzheng in a shop on a visit to China. Seduced, he couldn't leave without it, despite it's unrealistic size and fragility. It adds a strangeness and reflectivity that suits the album very well.
ENGLAND WITHOUT RAIN is a varied album, all told. Some tracks could be indie disco. "Atlantic" has bongos and constructed textures slipping, scratching and lurching with beguiling charm and civility. "November on the dunes, late one afternoon" he sings. Similarly. "Neon" is a Europop Hot Chip with a jolly kitsch "Puppet On a String" kind of sweet banality. "Double Helixxx" is more of a Caribbean vibe with bigger bass, waves of dancing, twinkling, with a glockenspiel singing "sometimes we twist apart sometimes we intertwine". Exactly and scientifically so. "You can't make energy, but you can set it free".
There's a casual erudition in the words. They sound easy and natural. But paying attention is more than worthwhile. Dancing's always possible, but some songs are for sitting up and for close listening . Across all the tracks, even four bars of simple repetition is unusual. But "Glockenspiel" is especially rich. It makes good use of the Chinese strings. It's a melodic and lyrical delight. Note the deftly absurd rhyme of "the crows on London Fields" with "I will I buy a box of wine and stay in with my glockenspiels?" and marvel. (Do you know London Fields and it's slightly anxious reputation? Have you seen the people who wander and play there in the sunshine? The song brings my last visit vividly back into memory). The song has some especially nice crescendo building towards the surprise, spoken, ending: "as Oscar Wilde said "only the shallow know themselves"". "The Wrong Door" that follows starts as some kind of electro funk shuffle with everything moving. Each separate track is shifted, layered and varied, bar by bar. It sparkles with changes and every time you get focussed on one idea, another one sneaks in to delight and surprise.
"England Without Rain", the title track itself has a Chinese gentility, with a western harmony and a subliminal ancient text that says "there's someone listening … blossom blows around the fruit trees, silence rules me resolutely". A bit of The Edge's guitar sneaks into the outro. Everything is elusive. Commitment is delayed, but eminently possible. It's a mysterious heart of the whole album, an album that has become a compulsion for me while I do other things, an album that has evaded coherent review as it fills the room and sets me day dreaming every time I try to settle down to analysis.
When the man sings "it's hard to forget" in the song "Sky Over Everything" he sings the truth. The chugging, driving-a-car-kind-of-song, perfect illuminated by the guzheng has lodged itself somewhere deep and keeps emerging at unexpected moments. In fact, every track is a good track. "England Without Rain" is a completely dudless album.
Put this on, quietly, when your clever friend pops round. "This is nice", she'll say. "What is it?"
(available on a download or gatefold CD basis)