Oh God I’ve tried. I really really have tried. I’ve had it in the background, in the foreground, at home, in the car, on speakers and through headphones and I still can’t find the right place for “Tomorrow’s harvest” by Boards of Canada.
There is something intangiably not quite right about “Tomorrow’s harvest” for me. It’s not like I don’t like BoC or don’t understand their reference points. I have liked and / or loved a lot of BoC’s previous work. I found out about BoC quite by accident – I had heard the name mentioned a few times in the music papers in the late 90s but was never intrigued enough to give them a listen. Then one day in late 2000 I walked into my local independent record shop and heard a beautiful piece of music being played. It sounded like a modern version of some Philip Glass classic. I asked the assistant what was playing and they told me it was “Zoetrope” by BoC and I bought the “In a beautiful place” EP there and then. Whilst I enjoyed the other tracks on the EP it was “Zoetrope” that was my favourite, and it still stands above almost all other BoC music in my mind. It is so different from everything else, it is an exercise in pure sound and quite lovely. I adored “Geogaddi” when it was released and played little else for a month, and “The campfire headphase” was better still in my opinion, the additional texture of guitars suited the material and the album flowed nicely. I also worked backwards and bought “Music has the right to children” and was disappointed by it. All the reviews I read raved about it, but I found it too basic. I felt the ideas were too simplified, the music didn’t progress, it was underdeveloped compared to the other albums I knew by them. There was a reliance on samples of children and counting and it didn’t really catch my attention in the same way as “The campfire headphase”. After a number of interviews to promote that album. BoC disappeared completely until this year. There was an elaborate puzzle involving numbers and codes and films and oh whatever to launch the album and frankly I feel that was a smokescreen to distract people from the album itself.
Now I’ve been playing “Tomorrow’s Harvest” off and on for almost three weeks and the music really isn’t sinking in. The album seems built on atmosphere and sound alone, there aren’t as many melodies as there used to be. In a way it’s a regression back to “MHTRTC’, the return of the counting voice samples, a lot of synthetic pads, some beats. I don’t find it a satisfying listen, I don’t feel compelled to play it again. Maybe I know too much though – half of it sounds like it wants to be “Music for films” by Brian Eno (all wispy atmosphere, monosynths with two oscillators set a fifth apart) and half of it sounds like the early 80s soundtrack work of Tangerine Dream (simple sequencer patterns, cheap drum machines). Maybe there’s depths lurking underneath which I haven’t reached. It feels like library music made in 1982, and has the same sense of functionality. Some tracks finish too soon before a theme is developed effectively, and some tracks drag on forever – “Jacquard Causeway” is a dirge that feel far longer than its six minutes.
But here’s my problem. I feel like I’m the only person who isn’t enjoying this album. Is this a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes? Or had I built up my expectations to a point where anything at all would be disappointing? I don’t think so really. Another recent album I had been anticipating for a while during it’s gestation was “Bronze Age” by The Kingsbury Manx and that was worth the wait because it was excellent, a wonderful record which used their established ideas being developed in some new directions. But “Tomorrow’s Harvest” feels different – it feels ordinary, more of the same, Part of the disappointment is the thought that after eight years of work, this is the best they can come up with. There are some good pieces of music on the album but they seem derivative of others – “White Cyclosa” is almost the same as The Advisory Circle’s “Nuclear substation PIF”. Too many songs start with synths playing fifths to establish the chord and trundle along from there – “Cold earth” is a good example of that. It’s nothing new – it’s typically BoC. “Sick times” seems to develop nicely as does “Palace posy” but don’t truly progress. “Split your infinities” has a rhythm track that is almost based on “Diva” by Jean-Michel Jarre – I just listen to the record getting annoyed because they are taking their cues from music I know intimately well. The album does improve towards the end, but only because the melancholy that used to be part of BoC’s stock in trade returns to the fore. If the aim of the album is a more “filmic” vision then perhaps they have succeeded – I can see this music being used as documentary background music in the future, but I feel no compulsion to listen to it repeatedly for pleasure. That’s the biggest disappointment for me – I love a lot of their work, but this doesn’t move or excite me in the same way. I get more pleasure from “Sleep games” by Pye Audio Corner – a recent album on Ghost Box Records which mines a similar vein, but with more humour and melody.
Part of my disappointment is also based on how I feel about the debut album by Tomorrow’s World. This is a collaboration between JB Dunckel from Air and Lou Hayter from New Young Pony Club, about whom I know precisely nothing. This album works in a similar area of sound to “Tomorrow’s Harvest” – old fashioned synths and drum machines but these tools are utilised towards songcraft rather than soundcraft. The melodies – both vocal and instrumental – are richer and more memorable, there are some lovely touches throughout the album which delight me – the autoharp on “Inside”, the Casio VL-tone on “Pleurer et chanter”, how acoustic piano is used sometimes as a bass instrument. It is slightly unfair of me to compare the two albums – one is vocal, the other instrumental and it’s clear “Tomorrow’s world” has a larger palette of sound to conjure with. However I really didn’t know what to expect from “Tomorrow’s world” – I had lost touch with Air a few years ago and have no idea about New Young Pony Club. However that lack of expectation has made the experience more pleasureable. It’s not a perfect album – it drags in the middle when they try more uptempo material – but the slower more melancholy songs are wonderful. The aforementioned “Pleurer et chanter” is one of my favourite songs this year, my schoolboy knowledge of French allowing me to mistranslate words but the power of the melody and arrangement shines through. “Life on Earth” hangs in the air like dandelion seeds, while “Don’t let them bring you down” is a simple piano ballad which Saint Etienne would kill for. Throughout the album Lou’s vocals are affectless but not blank and perfectly suited to the material, the only comparison point I can find is unsuitably obscure (Sheggi from Nottingham indie fuzz popsters The Fat Tulips!). It’s a satisfying listen with enough detail to make repeated listening a pleasure. Will I still be listening to either album at the end of the year? Who knows? I expect “Tomorrow’s world” will have been played more than “Tomorrow’s harvest”.
(My God I’m a dreadful album reviewer, perhaps I should stick to the past rather than the present?)
Next time – well it’s about time I went back to my parents’ record collection. I feel that Carpenters / Rod Stewart / Andy Williams combination is calling me.