Review of Last Things by Minute Taker
Mancunian Ben McGarvey’s second album is part of a recent wave of part-electronic, part soulful man-and-a-keyboard acts that some music marketing bod has labelled ‘digi-folk’. You could include artists as disparate as John Grant and James Blake with that tag – with those two having exemplary new releases out, how does this new album under McGarvey’s Minute Taker appellation compare?
First track ‘Merge’ is reminiscent of Nigel Godrich’s production on Thom Yorke’s first solo album. Godrich took drumbeats and flattened the top end – the effect is like distortion, as if someone’s kicked in the cones on your speakers. It brings an effective, slightly threatening edge to a plaintive lyric on McGarvey’s part and boots up the album with a nervy, worried freneticism.
That sense of nervousness, of apprehension, continues into the second track, ‘Wait For Me’. A little more approachable than ‘Merge’ McGarvey makes more of his voice on this track – he’s got a strong falsetto, which, with a treated bass voice, combines with a haunting ring of chimes to create the perfect urban soundtrack for insomniac comedowns….
‘I Draw Lines’ sees McGarvey getting out the acoustic, drawing the listener in before succumbing to a staccato drum, a complex arrangement underpinning what actually turns out to be quite an orthodox (as in commercial) song. (The song stops and goes into an abruptly different mode just towards the end – rushing to complete the review, I only realised that the song might change drastically by seeing the waveform on SoundCloud and hearing it out. Looking at waveforms to review music? We really do live in the Matrix…)
No electronic musician can use the word ‘Box’ without evoking Portishead’s classic ‘Glory Box’ and Minute Taker’s ‘Tin Box’ shares a sense of that track’s ethereality. Multitracked choirs surround our Manchester man until he lets rip in a Blakean, plaintive howl – it’s effective and lonely.
Things take a turn for orthodoxy again with ‘Let It Go’ –a commercial song that could be played solely on acoustic guitar for full effective. It’s catchy, undoubtedly, but just a little ordinary.
After a deceptive, orchestral start, ‘Alkali’ is another tale of the unsettled. 4am, still awake, just a single lamp on? Play this. It was about here I managed to identify who McGarvey’s voice reminds me of. There’s a half-remembered US band, briefly huge, by the name of Semisonic, and there’s an air of lead singer Dan Wilson in McGarvey’s voice. That’s not a complaint –Semisonic’s ‘All About Chemistry’ was a cracking tune, if a little more upbeat than McGarvey’s output.
‘Somewhere In Water’ seems to be a popular track –someone’s played the reviewer’s link 70 times – but to me it’s a little too reminiscent of the godawful ‘Forever Autumn’ from War of the Worlds…
McGarvey made his name with his home-produced album ‘Too Busy Framing’, reportedly recorded in his parents’ basement with an old piano, and the venerable instrument is dragged out again for ‘Coma’. This is involving and immersive; it swirls and it spirals and manages to be warm and uncomfortable at the same time.
The album concludes with ‘Tornado’ and ‘(A Homage To) Generation X’. ‘Tornado’ sounds like a bad dream – Mummy hide me from the scary man! – but ‘Homage’ sees out the night in fine style, soulful self-exploration, one man and his Joanna.
There are time when McGarvey strikes me as more of a writer, (I’d be interested to see him perform) and there are still touches of home-made production to the whole enterprise. It’s not wildly original, but McGarvey wraps his lonely hearts / lonely nights odysseys with an unpredictable electronic sheen that serves to jolt the listener – in a pleasant manner – and makes sure that you listen right through. If you do like James Blake, if you do like John Grant, you’ll like this next step on the journey to morning.
Review by Steve Noble