Ignorance really can be bliss and at the end of 1991 I was blissfully ignorant about the cause(s) of the demise of the Field Mice. There had been one full page interview with them in Melody Maker in October ’91 which gave no clue that there was any problems within the band, so it came as a huge surprise and shock to read the live review of the last gig of their Autumn tour in the MM, announcing their split. And from that point on I knew absolutely nothing about what would happen next, if anything at all. There was a barbed comment in one of the sleeve inserts to an early 92 Sarah Records single (possibly. “Honey sweet” by Secret Shine) about being more excited about a forthcoming Blueboy album than the ten millionth Field Mice album. But I didn’t read many fanzines so I knew precisely nothing. Would Bob Wratten make any new music? The music papers weren’t interested in telling me, being full of Suede and grunge and other dull things.
When a new copy of the WAAAAH fanzine arrived towards the end of 1992 it was a revelation. For a start, there was a full page interview with Blueboy (conducted by Dickon Edwards, I believe) with lots of information about my new favourite band. And of course a picture of Keith with a sign saying “Fuck this government to bits”, a fine sentiment then and now. And there was an EP by Bouquet too which was twee and cute and rather lovely. And there was a single page interview with Northern Picture Library. “Who?” I thought, then read on. Northern Picture Library were the new band formed by three fifths of the Field Mice, Bob Wratten, Anne-Mari Davies and Mark Dobson. The interview was carried out by the latter two members and hinted at new directions, new material and a new label – the plan was for the French label Danceteria to issue their records. But still it seemed like there would be something new to look forward to in the New Year. At the bottom of the page was a short paragraph mentioning a one off project by Wratten and Davies, a song called “A winter’s dawn” issued under the name The Yesterday Sky on a four song compilation EP. I immediately sent a cheque off for the EP (God bless you Richard Coulthard, wherever you are) and it arrived on 30th December and made my year. The three other tracks were great, and it was nice to have another song by the Sugargliders who at that point were proving to be quite a potent force in indie pop circles (weren’t “Seventeen” and “Letter from a lifeboat” marvellous songs?)… But the main event was “A winter’s dawn”.
It was clearly a demo, there was a layer of tape hiss, it sounded minimal, barely there, but there was enough passion and heartache in the song to last a lifetime. A drum machine is calm, mostly hihat patterns with a rim shot on the chorus. There’s a lightly phased rhythm guitar part, a simple single note lead guitar part and two vocals. Wratten is the main voice, sketching details of missing someone, while Davies adds harmonies here and there, to emphasise words or phrases. The chorus is beautiful, only the words “There’s so much time to go before i see you again”, but the chord changes underneath are gorgeous, the change on the word ‘again’ is so simple yet devastating. The song is stark, heartfelt, beautiful, and exactly captures that moment in a relationship when you can’t wait to see someone you love. I may have thought I understood that feeling at the time but I didn’t. This did not hinder my love for the song, and it is one of my three favourite songs ever.
So with that one song, my levels of anticipation sky rocketed. What would come next? How good would it be? The WAAAH interview hinted that Northern Picture Library would be more extreme than the Field Mice, and the Mice were pretty extreme within their limitations (from “Emma’s House” to “Other galaxies” via “Humblebee”). It didn’t help when Danceteria went bust but luckily the Vinyl Japan label stepped in and took over funding the album. Because that’s what they did, they seemed to steal artists from Sarah Records, and it even got a mention in a Sarah newsletter. Finally a small advert appeared in the music papers for s single in September and an album in October.
I bought the single on CD on the day it was issued and felt slightly disappointed on playing it. There were two versions of the same song, one mix more minimal than the other, and a seven minute instrumental. The title track of the single was “Love sing for the dead Che”, written by Joseph Byrd, and at that time I had no idea who he was or where the song came from. Again this was more disappointment, I wanted Wratten’s voice, Wratten’s songs not someone else’s song. When the single was reviewed in the Melody Maker (ignored by the NME as ever) it explained that it was a cover of a song from the only album by The United States Of America, and I remembered that name from my brother’s”Rock Machine” album (see previous post on the USA album during the summer). And the song itself was very nice… The first thirty seconds were great, a screeching sample with deep cavernous bass, before the song drifts into mid tempo normality, synth chords and Davies’ half-asleep vocals. It’s delightful, and you could call it trip hop if such a term existed at the time. The b side “The way that stars die” pulsed gracefully on a bed of cooing voices and chattering drum machines, with chords hinting at melodies or ideas, plus Morse code and a few speech samples. It was like “Triangle” had married “Humblebee” and had a child. Intriguing stuff, but as a way of deferring pressure it was perfect. Just what would the album be like?
One month on and I found out. “Alaska” was beautifully blank, the sleeve was a picture of an oil refinery at dusk, or something like that. There was the usual minimal amount of information on there, nothing to help the listener, little to cling to – except the music. Sometimes it’s good to do that, to focus on the music itself. Some of the song titles didn’t help either, two songs called “Untitled”???
“Untitled #1” was forty seconds of multitracked cooing from Davies, a lovely way to start, much like “Our prayer” starts “Smile”. Straight into “Into the ether” and already this listener noticed a change. For a start this was glossier than any Field Mice production, the quality of the recording was better, it sounded lavish, richly textured. And still it didn’t sound like anything else. A drum loop, a wandering yet melodic bassline, distant cooing from Davies, a recorder playing the melody and smack bang in the foreground someone hoovering. Or playing with white noise and filters, whatever. If NPL were trying to defy their fans to like it, they were doing well. After seven minutes “Catholic Easter Colours” fades in and sounds almost conventional, acoustic guitars ringing clear, someone blowing a melodica for as long as possible, real drums… And finally Wratten sings, after a long build up. I’ve never quite worked out what this song is about, he’s masking his voice with echo again (always a sign of his insecurity with the truths he sings), is it about a relationship falling apart? “We don’t talk to each other any more…” But the song is graceful and melodic, it’s a beauty. “Glitter spheres’ is a minute of odd noises, before “Insecure”. This is another tricky song, a wash of backwards guitars and synths, and Davies at her most heart wrenching. Is she singing her own words, or Wratten’s? Either way they cut to the core, about love and trust and leaving yourself open and bare to love. “There’s a part of your heart that’s never belonged to me”. Scary. There’s no resolution here, just doubt and hesitancy. “Dreams and stars and sleep” is an apt title, drifting for six minutes of backwards sounds, washes of keyboards, no vocals at all. Side one has been a most unexpected journey.
“Lucky” is the most conventional song so far, a slight lovers rock lilt, organ, deep bass and drums, and Davies singing of finding the perfect love if you are lucky. It sounds like Saint Etienne, which is fair enough as “So tough” was recorded at the same studio around the same time as “Alaska”. After two and a half minutes, the song gets a dub mix coda which is nice. “LSD icing” is another instrumental interlude before “Truly madly deeply”. Now I’ll admit I had trouble with this song, the simple piano introduction does a poor impression of “Imagine”, Wratten sings here about contentedness and happiness and in the wrong mood it can sound horribly cloying, a heartfelt love song which has a smattering of cliches, the title for a start. But there are melodic twists and the heart-on-sleeve honesty just about see the song finish on the right side of the line marked “cringe worthy”. It’s slightly uncomfortable listening, though. “Isn’t it time you faced the truth?” is slightly bitter, and slight. Luckily this side of the album improves, another interlude with “Untitled #2” which sounds like the odd “Oh that’s nice” coda to Julian Cope’s “Metranil Vavin” leading into “Skylight”, sounding like it would fit perfectly on side two of “For keeps”, starting with strummed acoustic guitars and Wratten’s most impassioned vocal, sympathetic to someone’s miserable life, while slowly Davies’ harmonies and more instruments take over the song. Beautiful. “Of traffic and the ticking” returns us to the start, those harmonies that opened the album are now part of a song, harpsichords, bass, tambourine, a Pet Sounds tribute? And is Wratten singing to the same person as “Skylight”? Possibly. Very beautiful. A piano reprise of “Lucky” to close the album itself. (This was a common trick that year, One Dove closed their wonderful “Morning Dove White” with a brief reprise of “White Love”). And as a bonus for buying the CD, a droning instrumental called “Monotone”, looped percussion, unison bass and guitar, those tremelo guitars the Field Mice loved in 1991, and a general trancelike nature. I’d forgotten how good this track is, those backwards guitars!
I know I loved “Alaska” at the time, and I still do now. It gets a bit soppy with “Truly madly deeply” but besides that it is a chance to hear Wratten stretching out into unexpected territory. Probably the C86 contingent waiting for the next “Emma’s house” were disappointed and it sold one tenth of the copies the last Field Mice album sold, but it didn’t fall on deaf ears. To those with more expansive and less catholic tastes it hit the spot. In December of 1993 I wrote to Dickon Edwards (of Orlando and Fosca and Dickon Edwards fame) asking how to produce a fanzine (it never happened) and he wrote back about how he was listening to “Alaska” because it covered everything from the Field Mice to The Orb. So people were listening. Around the same time, Richard Coulthard compiled an indie pop version of “The Sound Of Music” and NPL contributed a spectral version of “Something good”, washed in reverb, Davies singing pure and clear, a special song. Almost as good as Blueboy’s take on “My favourite things”. (I’m not joking either)
A few months later Northern Picture Library issued a new EP titled “Blue Dissolve” which may be a Neil Young reference. Again on Vinyl Japan, four new songs, another song called “Untitled”? I was living in Newport by this time but bought the EP on the way to my parents’ house in Penarth where I was cat sitting for a few days. So my first play of the record was sat in my parents’ music room, headphones on with Bez and Buffin sitting next to me on the sofa (clearly Max and Casca were outside). “Dear faraway friend” is eleven minutes long, and starts slowly, organ and guitar, shakers, very peaceful. I’ve never been clear about the lyrics, the song is written as a letter, and I can never decide if the writer is worried about a war or persecution or whatever. The first few verses are one letter, the last few verses are a later letter where the writer is calmer and more considered, “Thank you for worrying about me”. After seven minutes, some drums finally kick in and the tone of the song changes, waves of distorted electric guitars rise up and engulf the song, alongside more noise from organs and other instruments, the song accelerates slightly and … It just exists. It’s not as surprising and thrilling as the guitars on “Sensitive” or as shocking or drastic as the noise assault on “Other galaxies” (the last Field Mice recording, eleven minutes of build and explosion). It just doesn’t go anywhere. It’s actually a pleasure when it cuts out at eleven minutes. “Here to stay” is “Insecure” part two, washes of keyboards, Davies singing again, and there’s more doubt, a possibility of the end of the romance, but the friendship will remain. This song chills me to the bone, always did and always will. It’s so honest. And at the end the song goes from major to minor key and slips into darkness, implying the change has already happened. God, that ending sends shivers down my spine “Untitled #3” is another instrumental mood piece, “Echoes” piano droplets, ticking clocks, Davies’ wordless sighs, more tension even without words. What the hell was going on in Northern Picture Library to make this music? “Breaking” gives no answer, a churning hunk of sound, which wouldn’t sound out of place on “Dry Stone Feed” by Main. Maybe that was the point? Wratten’s voice can be heard in the miasma but is indistinguishable from the noise around him. There’s still a melody hiding in there, Wratten can’t hide his pop heart, but there is an uneasiness to the song, to the whole record which makes for uncomfortable listening, even with two Burmese cats fighting for your lap.
Around this time – Spring 1994 – Northern Picture Library was assimilated back into the fold of Sarah Records. They played a tour of France alongside Blueboy which must have been curious. Davies stayed at home as her stage fright was unbearable and NPL didn’t have the technology to translate their keyboard heavy studio sound into a live situation. The tour was odd, there were indulgences and peculiar behaviour and nobody deemed it a success. In the eighth Sarah Records newsletter, Matt and Clare state that NPL are recording four new songs for Sarah, the best they’ve done, and they would be issued as two singles in the Autumn. Oddly enough the song titles at this point are “Paris”, “Last September’s Farewell Kiss”, “She’s waiting out there” and “Texas” (that title is a joke for film fans, they admit).
The first of these singles was issued in September ’94, just as I was forming the Cloud Minders with Paul and discovering through him that the objection of my affection for the past two years was batting for the other side. And she had a dog called Paris so I always associate the dog with this song. Not that this is relevant. “Paris” is a quite conventional sounding song, weaving guitars and strident drums, but the words are worrying. Davies is singing them quite sweetly, yet it’s unclear whether she wrote them or if Wratten wrote them, or if they are real thoughts or imaginary. “What you want is a girlfriend, that’s what I don’t want to be”. And it goes downhill from there, each line cutting the possibility of a relationship into shreds. Is this the end of the relationship, the end of the affair? “Let me dream of Paris” sings Davies, and it’s the dream that keeps her sane. The b side “Norfolk Windmills” is even harsher, Wratten is singing now over a spare arrangement of guitar and keyboard and drums, and these words hurt. He’s doubting his love for her, he’s not so much under her spell… “Once I could never see us ending, now I’m not so sure”. Ouch. There’s no resolution either, only a droning lead guitar part as the song fades away.
One month on and there’s the second single in a matching sleeve. There is the addition of Gemma from Blueboy on cello to add to the musical palette. “Last September’s farewell kiss” starts quietly, the cello and guitar chords descending as Wratten sings about disappearances and doubtful love, saying goodbyes and false feelings. Then the chorus bursts in, drums and bass and distorted guitars and Davies’ harmonies (this is the only time both Davies and Wratten sing together on these Sarah tracks) and Wratten is at the end of his tether, a kiss touched him and it’s made him think – though there’s a hint of doubt in the line “You really care about me, don’t you?” The second verse is more specific, mentions of Bristol, Paris and London – who is this about? (I do have an idea actually). Then a killer line – “I wasn’t the easiest person to have for a best friend, but then neither were you”. Ouch again. The song builds to a crescendo of guitars and drums, and this time it works. And then I flipped the single over and wanted to die.
“Signs” is sparse. Guitar, cello and Wratten’s voice. It doesn’t need anything else. There’s nowhere to hide now. Wratten is thinking of her, and of how she doesn’t know how he feels. He clings to his hopes, knowing he’s being foolish. “Was I just seeing signs when there were no signs?” Already my heart is in my mouth. Isn’t this ME? She’s not thinking of him, he’s thinking of her. He knows he’s being stupid but it doesn’t stop him enjoying the whirlwind of unrequitedness. “I cannot stop thinking about someone I hardly know”. To hear this song at the end of wasting two years pining for someone who clearly would never be interested… It absolutely killed me. This was every song I ever wanted to write, this was my life in five minutes.
And then nothing. No more records by Northern Picture Library. A single line in a later Sarah newsletter stated that they had broken up, no explanation, nothing. The story became clearer in 1996 with the start of Wratten’s next band / project Trembling Blue Stars, how the relationship between him and Davies had broken down, so the band stopped and he channelled his feelings into the first TBS album “Her handwriting”, and the rest is history for another time. Obviously they reconciled enough for Davies to sing on some TBS songs, and I believe she sings on Wratten’s forthcoming project Lightning In A Twilight Hour. I’ve only heard two songs from that so far but they are both excellent and it promises to be a highlight of this year. Northern Picture Library tend to get passed over these days, but in their small catalogue there are some great songs, not least “Signs”. The marvellous LTM label has compiled all the NPL material onto two CDs which are well worth investigating, there’s a delightful cover of the Stars Of Heaven’s “Ammonia train” on one…
Anyway, God bless Bob Wratten and all those who sail with him in his many guises.
Next time – I’ve been away too long and I’m wondering why…