14 October 2012

Album Review: Finn LeMarinel - Violence (Ubisano)

Finn LeMarinel - Violence (Ubisano)

There must surely be a critical mass for 'guys with guitars' in the business? A point where the system can take no more, and the audience becomes subject to the law of diminishing returns? In Scotland just now there are many such performers treading the boards – and there are a surprising number who manage to be pretty original and to stand out from the ever burgeoning crowd it's fair to say. But it's probably difficult to fit Finn LeMarinel into this mould at all – mostly because he manages to produce something quite unlike the fairly standard singer-songwriter fare which seems to crop up everywhere just now. Almost certainly more familiar for his fronting of Trapped In Kansas, the complex rhythms and spiralling juggernaut riffs which that outfit specialises in are just not going to cut it here in this world of whispers and string buzzes. So how has this quietly creative soul managed to translate his expansive musical visions from the band format to this closer, more personal milieu?

There are three simple tenets at the secret heart of this record's hypnotic success. Firstly, LeMarinel's trademark is his unorthodox guitar playing, which shifts surprisingly easily across from Trapped In Kansas with much of his technique remaining intact – a mixture of bright arpeggios, resounding, rhythmic hammers or taps and intricately note-bending solos – all of which blend into a shimmering backdrop for these songs. His ability to switch modes in the middle of the often complex compositions on "Violence" is sometimes dizzying, but always breathtaking – particularly when this is accompanied by shifts in tone and tempo which twist new life out of songs just when lesser performers would be aiming for a final chorus and a triumphant flourish. As his chords sparkle and hang echoing around the periphery, the second element of this heady mix is apparent – LeMarinel's fragile, breathy and sometimes spookily disengaged voice. He appears capable of some of the same dynamics here as he achieves with his guitar – whoops, swoons and leaps of key, followed by passages of cracked, achingly dark sentiment. And these passages best suit the third force at work here – his enigmatic and contemplative lyrics. Never straying far from themes of exposure, death and decay, it's sometimes rather curious to hear a desperately pretty melody subverted to support some of these gloomy themes.

Setting a perfect example of these three elements at work, "Sown" is driven by a relentless tumble of notes and taps which scratch out an urgent  rhythm before things settle into sepulchral echoes and droplets of metallic guitar which roll and tumble forward. Emerging from this reel, LeMarinel embarks on a curious tale of naked cleaning and exposure to the elements which is backed by a volley of taps and thrums which work into a satisfyingly scratchy ending. "Known Voices" is the longest piece on the records, and begins with a recollection of stealing from his mother's purse at which point the song's protagonist admits "I felt the storm around me". As this confessional theme continues, the song trips into a slow-core tapping chorus around the theme "I know all of your secrets". Then, rather suddenly for a moment it's just Finn's voice echoing and filling the speakers, before one of the few supplementary instruments here, a wash of organ, joins the piece.

Given its relatively short duration, "Winter" is a strange portmanteau song built from a shuffling, jazzy piece which playfully skips around disturbing couplets like "no dead body/is coming home to hold me". Alongside this is a part constructed from detuned, discordant plucking and a chaotic wash of random notes while LeMarinel harmonises with his own falsetto above this. As ever, mortality is never far from the surface of these compositions, and this in no exception. All of this distils into "Places Known" – chosen as a lead single for the record, and understandably so as it manages to traverse the landscape LeMarinel has defined in the space of three gorgeously sparkling minutes of acoustic pop music. Dropping to a near whisper in the midst of this, Finn's voice is left to carry the tune until a frenetic tapped and picked end section appears. Equally accessible, and strangely and obliquely political is "The Mayor" – a loping, occasionally amusing tale of local government which flits between tales of good and bad governance, before ending in a siren-like repeated pattern of high notes. It probably doesn't – but certainly could – refer to the antics of a certain celebrity Mayor down south…

But it's on the frenzied tangle of "Wrung" that Finn's ability to coax quite incredible sounds from his guitar is most ably on display. Gaining and declining in pace, the tumult of notes and percussive taps ebbs and flows around LeMarinel's voice as he implores us to "say no to chain gangs". Somewhere in the guts of this is a traditional composition, a touch of folkiness – but it's buried deep. Its easy to miss among the displays of technique and ability that LeMarinel is a talented songwriter who can produce the likes of "Is This All They Are?" which appeared on a solo EP a couple of years back. It's a slinky delight, tinkling with bright notes and clear open harmonies as it climbs and dips around the scales. It's simple, perhaps disarmingly so, but comes across as quite otherworldly. It sits almost at the end of this occasionally emotionally challenging record as a bookend, shoring up the less upbeat sentiments. It dissipates in time for "Noone" which is by far the most traditional sounding piece on the record. A gentle, rather twee sounding ballad which gives the game away with lines like "I would gnaw through my own skin/before opening up and letting you in". There's no relief, not even here at the end of the record.

It's always been part of the rock tradition that a solo record by someone far more familiar in their band incarnation is an indulgence of influences which can't ever fit into the more democratic format of the group. However, "Violence" is more of a natural extension than an illogical addendum to the Trapped In Kansas catalogue. Taking the themes and preoccupations of the band's work to more personal psychological territory, and stretching the passages of virtuoso guitar which burst out of the band's work into entire songs this feels like an entire obvious way for LeMarinel to develop his more reflective material. "Violence" manages to captivate with its spiralling sound pictures and to repel with its sometimes visceral lyrical imagery which is echoed in the Francis Bacon like cover artwork. Somewhere in the middle things seem to balance perfectly, and that's where this record finds its mark.

"Violence" is released on 15th October by Ubisano Records.

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