Saturday, November 04, 2006

Moonless Night
in the Small Town

Starless & Bible Black,
Starless & Bible Black,
Locust Music

"Starless & Bible Black take their name from British jazz pianist Stan Tracey's fantastic tune of the same name and culled from the famous Dylan Thomas radio play Under Milk Wood."
-- Locust Music press release

When I first heard about this Manchester band, I wondered why
they named themselves after a King Crimson album. From the
Other Music description, it was clear they didn't sound anything
like their proggy predecessors. Not that 1974's Starless is a bad
album, but it isn't Crimson's best (I prefer 1969's In the Court
of the Crimson King). When I mentioned this to a friend, he sug-
gested that the phrase probably comes from a play or poem or
some such thing. In short order, he forwarded the following:

"It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-
black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters'-and-
rabbits' wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black,
crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea. The houses are blind as
moles (though moles see fine tonight in the snouting, velvet ding-
les) or blind as Captain Cat there in the muffled middle by the
pump and the town clock, the shops in mourning, the Welfare Hall
in widows' weeds. And all the people of the lulled and dumbfound
town are sleeping now." --Dylan Thomas, Under Milk Wood (1954)

I kept these words in mind
while listening to the self-
titled debut from Starless & Bible Black (especially since
I'm not familiar with Stan
Tracey). If the reference to
the progressive quartet
doesn't make sense, how
about the Welsh poet? Though
it's clear the trio doesn't intend a direct correlation—and it's just a name, after all—it fits as well as anything. The group builds their
sound on a base of folk (acoustic finger-picking) to which they add
shades of jazz (stand-up bass, brushes), electronic drones, and
chanson (Hélène Gautier sings with a pronounced French accent).

For the most part, it's quiet stuff. Like what Thomas is describing
in that passage from Under Milk Wood. But there's a whimsy to his
words that isn't part of the Starless style. The group's approach is
straightforward and sincere. When Gautier sings, "You are incred-
ible / You're out of sight" ("Tredog") she sounds as if she has no
idea that "out of sight" is a dated hippyism. As Johnny Rotten
might say, "She means it, man." Starless and Bible Black is an
irony-free zone, which means, assuming that irony really died
after 9/11 (a highly debatable proposition), that it's either way
ahead of its time or hopelessly anachronistic. I haven't decid-
ed which, but the lack of cynicism is certainly refreshing.

Having established that Starless doesn't sound like Crimson, here
are a few of the artists to which they've been compared: Pentang-
le, John and Beverly Martyn, the Velvet Underground and Nico,
Marianne Faithfull, the Cocteau Twins, and Eno-era Roxy Music.
Roxy Music aside (I don't hear it), I would add that fans of Beth
Orton, the Incredible String Band, and Blind Faith will find much
to admire. Why Blind Faith? Because I can easily envision this
threesome covering "Can't Find My Way Home." The song "B.B."
captures the same sad, sleepy mood. I'm also reminded of Tones
on Tail and Love and Rockets at their most mellow (something
about guitarist Peter Phillipson's Eastern-tinged playing).

Returning to the band's evocative name, would Dylan Thomas
admirers take to Starless & Bible Black? Not being famil-
iar with his work, I can't say. Their lyrics sound more like, well,
lyrics than prose or poetry, but literature lovers may well luxur-
iate in these soft and sensuous sounds. Those looking for music
with more of an edge, however, are advised to seek their fix el-
sewhere. As in that excerpt from Under Milk Wood, Starless
seeks to relax and to lull rather than to enliven and enervate.

Endnote: Images from Locust Music. For more information,
please see Starless & Bible Black's MySpace Page, which fea-
tures "The Birley Tree," "Time is for Leaving," and "Davanit-
sa" (a non-LP track). Interestingly, they list Jim Jarmusch
as an influence. Here's hoping he uses their music in a movie.

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