The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Tuesday, April 25, 2006
PLANETS CONSPIRE TO FURNISH US WITH EMPATHY

Although it’s not due for official British release for a further two months, it is Rough Trade’s album of this month, and the Rough Trade shop in Covent Garden is where I found it, and I will still take a lot of convincing to believe that you didn’t sneak into that shop while I was away and place a copy there so I could find it, exactly when I needed to hear it. Emotionally, “blown away” would be a sadly sober underestimation of how I feel about Planets Conspire, the first album by Toronto’s Meligrove Band to be issued in Britain, and yes they’re another Toronto band, but that’s how it goes when you’re in love, you discover multiple beautiful new worlds all at the same time, and to this mind Toronto in 2006 is as excitingly creative for music as Glasgow was in 1980, or Chicago in 1994, with all these new lives to take into blissful account. The highest compliment I can pay these new Canadians is that listening to them makes me feel sixteen again (and, yes, partly in the Buzzcocks sense).

How great is Planets Conspire? Put simply, it manages to achieve what the latter-day Mercury Rev and Flaming Lips have aspired to accomplish, namely the perfect fusion of musical adventure, deranged glee and bottomless, ever-full reservoirs of genuine emotion and compassion. To hear singer Jason Nunes squeal with joy “Then God will sing, SING a pretty SONG!” and thereafter immediately howl “OH, COME ON!!!” may lead the listener to discern a deep spiritual leyline running through the Meligrove Band’s music – but this spirituality is worlds away from the facile chanting of the Polyphonic Spree or creepy Cliff Richard Godheadism, is more in keeping with the spirits of Bessie Banks and Pharaoh Sanders, but in a post-post-rock way.

It’s been a long time since I’ve heard an opening track as welcoming and overwhelmingly joyous as “Isle Of Yew” (the titular pun is obvious, the deeper emotional links with “Isles Of Sleep,” the song which resolves Bill Fay’s Tomorrow, Tomorrow And Tomorrow, less so). It begins with a piano melody which would fit easily into a Keane or Coldplay record, but the live, breathing, boxed-in drums immediately lift the song into a different and brighter sphere. “I feel like I’ve been living alone,” Nunes muses, “I guess I must be doing it wrong/Ooh (and crucially the Meligrove Band are a band big on the power of “ooh”s) I, I think about it/Ooh, I, I DREAM about it,” and then for the home strait of “Oh I never want to be alone again” and leaping over the winning post with the YOU KNOW IT MELTS ME celebratory shout of “I LOVE YOU! And I hope you’ll come through,” whereupon gentle strings accordingly come through. A pause leads to strengthened affirmation: “If you look you’ll see I’m still around/Ooh, OH, I’m here for you/I’ll never leave you.” There are signs here of a message from the afterlife, underlined by the long, lowly hovering final string chord (the bottom of the “Save The Country” trumpet canyon?) and throughout the record there are increasing signifiers that this is a suite of remembrance, and therefore would have spoken to me in an entirely different way a year ago, though clearly I now demand to interpret it as what it means apropos you and me, and geographical distance rather than emotional absence.

The more sprightly title track is (like most of the album) piano-driven, and recalls a refreshed Ben Folds or possibly even a superior Supertramp. It is a wonderful dewy dawn of a song immortalising those moments of initial tingle (“Oh, where have I been?…/Much too busy keeping cool/That’s when I met you/And my life changed/I have opened my eyes/Now my heart sings” – if this were Barry Manilow a couple of ahems might be permissible, but Nunes sings it as if no one had ever sung such lyrics before, and there’s the Meligrove magic). But then again, the bend sinister: “If you keep the love I gave you/You’ll turn around when nothing’s left” followed by silence. As with “Reach Out, I’ll Be There,” the guide is more spirit than corporeal being.

“Grasshoppers In Honey” takes the internal Meligrove struggle out to face the world, from the opening ecstatic flurry of “Ooh, I love the way that you love me,” to the New Seekers rewrite “I’d love to teach the world to live the way it sings in fantasy,” before Nunes once again veers on the desperate (“PLEASE listen to my PLEAS!”), which in turn leads to a love/hate struggle between minor key guitar storms and major key bubblegum (the intro to Roy Orbison’s “Penny Arcade,” no less!). Whistling and double drums provide reinforcements, and good finally triumphs, as underwritten by the concluding downward-cascading double piano signoff.

“Everyone’s A Winner” isn’t the Hot Chocolate song but shares the same beliefs; though it sounds slightly like the Boo Radleys playing “Cold As Ice,” these beliefs are explicitly positive (“And when you want it more than anything/Then fate will bring you all that once seemed lost”), culminating in more feedback and squeals of “PLEASE BELIEVE IN ME!” and “I BELIEVE IN YOU!” before the piano collapses to the bottom of the lift shaft.

“Feversleep” is an ever-shifting instrumental reverie which makes me think of Pet Sounds as re-recorded by Olivia Tremor Control, moving through ghostly Bartokian piano, fast 6/8 Mahavishnu riffing, brass figures halfway between mariachi and klezmer, wordless vocal humming, some Weill-ish theatrical flourishes and finally a female scream, leading into the glummer “Ages And Stages” – note the piano pausing, as if suspended over a suddenly opening trapdoor, after the words “I was afraid of the footsteps I’d hear,” but then note how the spirit picks up instantly (“Oh I can feel it’s time!”) and yet slows in echoes to a discordant half-tempo over which Nunes asks the rhetorical question “Were we crazy?” – which in itself begs immediate linkage with the Gnarls Barkley song (more about him/them/it imminently, but for now I’m pretty convinced that “Crazy” is the best askew-mainstream pop single since Prince’s “Kiss”) – followed by a searing affirmative of “OR IS THIS LOVE BEGINNING?” immediately answered by a fusillade of drums and guitar, then strings again, building up monophonically over the refrain “Now, are the old days over?” Eventually, they will need to be if any new love is to begin.

“Our Love Will Make The World Go Round” is the record’s nearest thing to a “Wake Up”-type anthem with its very 1970 Plastic Ono Band echoed vocal (in this context, a good thing) of “I must have died a hundred times/(a sublime micropause just to check)…And I’m still breathing”). “Start the healing,” Nunes commands. “We’ll do what we can,” he offers in a lovely, delicate and generous five-note descending scale, “with these emotions.” The song culminates in his pronouncement “I will try,” so the world isn’t perfect, and neither are people, but that’s not going to stop us, nothing can stop us now, you know that, and so does the drone chant with which this hymn climaxes.

“Free On The Air” could almost be an Oasis ballad with sense and point added. “The stars are born so we can die” (cf. Kate Bush’s “Sunset”) is the opening meditation, but the absolutely loving chorus line of “Find someone who’s easy to love” is irresistible, as are the sentiments of “We’re holding onto all the loving that we’re never letting go” – ooh, that is so right, you can feel it can’t you, especially when it segues into that gorgeous counterpart of baroque violin and fuzz bass. “Find someone with an easy love. I’m easy,” and you know, I never always thought I was easy to love, though I should have done, because it was other people who found it difficult, who couldn’t see through the obstacles I never placed there, who wanted me only to become a replica of somebody or something else, but you alone, you found the key to me, and isn’t it so easy and wasn’t it so easy to find, really, and if anyone else had realised it was that easy to love me and for me to love in return, well, but then again you’re not anyone else, and thank God for that, you alone had the strength and compassion to see the heart of me, the soul of me, and now it’s so easy for me to live again…

And to live again means finally letting go of the past, and that’s what the last few songs on Planet Conspire sum up so fundamentally and brilliantly. So “Free On The Air” is a straighter, major-key variant on Sebadoh’s “Spoiled,” with its quiver-inducing mention of “places where we had a laugh,” and its stark admission that “recollections get the best of me” (past tense as far as I’m concerned; now you get the best of me) leading to a sitting-in-the-corner-weeping-with-strange-happiness scenario of a melodic fugue and roundelay leading in turn to Boards of Canada-ish fragments of birdsong and children’s chatter, all finally dissolving into echoes of its own remembering. I understand immediately what the Meligrove Band are saying here, at least to me: the past was sweet and bright but in finality it is the past…

“…So let the sunshine come out and make it better!” as if I didn’t expect a song entitled “You’re Alive” (OH YES!) to conjure up the Fifth Dimension. “Do not ask yourself why the water is not wetter…/You’re not alone/YOU’RE ALIVE (with a lovely Beatles harmonic sixth),” and the chord changes are gorgeous, and it all climaxes in another spiritual chant: “YOU’RE SO BEAUTIFUL!” – so much more poignant for its wavering harmonies (this track in general makes me think of Badfinger with a happy ending – Goodfinger, perhaps?).

“And you know, you’ve been right all along…”

And straight into the giant question mark of a finale, “Delivered From All Blindness Of Heart” with its initial electronic whirrs (another abyss) giving way to undiluted Beach Boys harmonies and a very brief but not morose lyric: “Now that it’s over/I’m on my own/Though I am not there/And it seems all is lost/I’ve got more than ever/I’ve found love.” So those first two lines are the first two years of CoM, then the next two lines the missing two years of CoM, and the final two lines are the nowness of CoM – that’s how I choose to interpret it. As a not-at-all out-of-place Minimoog swoops into the high-register ether, setting up the long and deliberate instrumental outro (with the occasional spice of elbows-to-keyboard), I think that this record is you finding me, persuading me to release myself from my grief and guilt, revealing to me the love and future which had existed all along, and there’s an ending, and it’s another extended pause, a long electronic chord drone with specks of feedback (Escalator “ends” the same way!) which in itself is eventually subsumed by musique concrete effects which in turn reveal themselves as – a mother and baby, and an orchestral film soundtrack, probably coming from the TV in the living room. That in turn evaporates into a closing flurry of abstract electronica, as though turning to me and saying with a smile, “Well, the choice is yours.” Well, I am yours, we both know that, and so Planets Conspire conspires to make me even more euphoric because despite its subtext of a material love now gone, it doesn’t close off the future, admits the possibility that I might find that recipe again – as indeed I have. It makes me even more acutely aware of the imperishable and precious love there is between us; what Planets Conspire finally affirms is that for us there is now the chance of a happy ending. The kind of irrefutable Faith which even the George Michael of 1987 might not have fully grasped; it reminds me that in this world, some things are bigger and greater than even music, namely, you and me.


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