Movietone, "Peel Sessions 1994 - 1997"
This collection of three sessions shows a group evolving from a whisper to (less a scream, than) the ghost of a mumble. Movietone‚Äôs introspective sound is naturally overlooked in a society which places more value on action, fast talking, and loudness. Their music remains elusive to define and to grasp, with a vocal style, choice of instruments, and an arm‚Äôs length embrace of folk and improvisational jazz which sets them apart, even from such contemporaries as Third Eye Foundation and Flying Saucer Attack in the post-rock branch of (what can loosely be termed) the Bristol post-rock "scene." The best of their work might be described by the verse (Peter 3:4) "let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a quiet spirit."
There is a long list of artists that made better versions of their songs for John Peel‚Äôs radio program than they did for their own albums. Whether this stems from the urge to impress the great man or the liberated feeling of getting away from their normal environs, everyone from Ivor Cutler, Echo & The Bunnymen, Billy Mackenzie, Microdisney, and The Smiths is on that list; which I am now reminded includes Movietone.¬†Things commence here with the somnambulant terrain of "Mono Valley" and whispered vocals very low in the mix. This is voice as synthetic mood hiss rather than conveyor of words. A tension builds which is released by bits of noise: the sound of bottles being smashed, glass shards strewn, then squalling saxophone, sliced jabs of guitar, and discordant piano, all crashing in at intervals. It reminds me of the added background effects on a couple of pieces on Joy Division‚Äôs Unknown Pleasures.
Movietone's progression is well documented by these sessions. "Chocolate Grinder" resembles the noise of a band of toy instruments following a slinky bass line beneath a nocturnal urban wasteland, it‚Äôs if they have upped sticks to the Parisian catacombs to fiddle around with jazz instruments while repairing a washing machine; the pace and volume are increased a bit around the midpoint of its six minute duration but it never goes into overdrive‚Äîlike a car ride at night down the M5 to Bristol while closely observing the speed limit. "Summer" is a slight but delightful track, the instrumental equivalent of a pastoral-hued poem read by a girl (modest, beautiful, and ordinary) who sits in the corner of the kitchen at a party having avoided eye contact with everyone.¬†"Stone" is a wilder screech of a song, as tension again is released "and all we ever wanted, is here." While it‚Äôs a joy to actually be able to hear the words on "Darkness Blue Glow," they do seem less important than the sound of the voice. "Heatwave Pavement" stumbles along down an ordinary street, with coughs, mumbled snippets pieces of verse "beautiful‚Ä¶ending..tent..street.. and, now raining again...it was like the Mediterranean...a black rock...the tide‚Ä¶ compose my mind...the music...have to do..the image..sitting there..people‚Äôs voices, people smiling...it was nice."
"Hydra" is the major highlight here, and in the group‚Äôs entire discography. Brisk, taut, a swinging mood of a type that could almost be jazz yet clearly is not, and of course its exact meaning remains obscured beneath a loosely sketched depiction of a beach. The group were standing apart from other kinds of music, in part by choosing and sticking to their own codes of expression. Much like Disco Inferno would do a few years later. This honing of identity, of a distinctive sound where tiny deviations can then seem like a big departure, is a strength rather than a flaw. Movietone's music is a quiet rebellion, regardless of how big a splash it made, or how many influential ripples can be noted. This rebellion is similar in tone to Alvin Curran‚Äôs brilliant Songs and Views From the Magnetic Garden. I have heard said that the group methodology contains devices used in the making of cinema v√©rit√©, to depict reality with an unadorned quality, found say in the films directed by John Cassavetes, wherein (if I understand correctly) the plot is only as important as having the participants appear as if they are not actors. There is a recognizable power is that achievement which can almost be felt on another of the best of these session tracks: "Blank Like Snow" carries a poignant ache that is attached to the creativity of those who insist on retaining the status of ordinary, everyday, people. We hear their music, and it can at times be transcendent, but we can also feel them having their cups of tea, wearing their secondhand clothes from Oxfam, reading the same books and watching the same films or television series as the rest of us. And with Movietone, the sonic palate of their songs is similar to a real design classic: Ordnance Survey maps - which show every church, ditch, hillock, footpath, phone box, road, rock, ruin, stile, and weir, in an ultra-detailed depiction of a small area.