When I was about nine or 10 and just starting to take a serious interest in music, my elder brother, in a rare show of fraternal indulgence, took it upon himself to introduce me to the delights of indie synth-pop.
To my great surprise and eternal gratitude he presented me with a cassette tape (ask your parents kids!). On one side was Yazoo’s Upstairs at Eric’s and on the other Happy Families by Blancmange.
I still have that battered old cassette today, because it inspired a lifelong interest in experimental and electronic music.
All of which preamble brings me to Unfurnished Rooms, the latest release by the new post-Stephen Luscombe Blancmange.
Essentially now a solo outfit, following Luscombe’s enforced retirement due to illness, …Rooms is the latest in a clutch of Blancmange releases on the band’s own Blanc Check label.
With frontman Neil Arthur at the helm, the group has moved away from the spry pop hits of their heyday, while remaining true to the avant-garde spirit and quirky, dark wit of their early EPs and album tracks.
In a revealing interview with EP last month, Arthur spoke of his desire to drill down to the essence to find true simplicity in his songwriting.
He also told how he tired never to give too much away, allowing listeners to find their own meanings to the songs.
To his great credit, both these, on the face of it, diverse aims are crystallised in Unfurnished Rooms.
Ably assisted on production by Wrangler‘s Benge, Arthur has created a strange dreamlike album, that’s at once almost childish in its simplicity and yet devilishly difficult to decipher.
From the opening title track onwards, it’s a tangled web of surreal images, half remembered truths and reminiscences “unfinished works….left behind”.
On the Bowie/T-Rex homage What’s The Time? the lyrics are rolled off in lists: “What’s your favourite crime?/What’s the best indie record of all time?”.
There’s a sinister juxtaposition between the uncomfortable and the inane “What’s the best dog you’ve ever had?” before “the best famine you endured?”
Jabs of guitar and keys reinforce the unsettling mood.
Social media appears to be an abiding theme, most notably on Old Friends when an online story about a whippet turns into something else entirely and Don’t Get Me Wrong – a wry look at the contrast between digital fantasy and mundane reality.
The latter also features avowed Blancmange aficionado John Grant on backing vocals and piano.
Sometimes a news story provides the inspiration as on We Are The Chemicals, while Wiping The Chair seems to be about a meeting with an old partner – a Sliding Doors-style look back at what might’ve been, a path not taken.
Arthur’s voice remains a flexible tool, rising from a deathly whisper on some tracks to a full blooded Lancastrian roar on others.
The music too, is very varied from jarring snatches of noise (Share It Out) to big volcanic choruses (Old Friends).
There’s big stadium rock guitar, courtesy of David Rhodes (Scott Walker, Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush) on Gratitude – an uncharacteristically heavy track which throws everything but the kitchen sink into the production.
A rich vein of humour runs through the record, most obviously on the punning Anna Dine (see below), but it’s a very difficult album to work out, inviting repeated listens.
Freed of any major label pressure to write chart hits, Arthur seems to be ploughing his own peculiar furrow both lyrically and musically.
On the strength of this album. long may he continue to do so.
- Unfurnished Rooms is out now on Blanc Check Records
- For more about Blancmange visit the band’s website.