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Album review: The Glue Ensemble “We Used To Live Round Here” (FRUK)

February 12, 2015

Cover of The Glue Ensemble "We Used To Live Round Here"Founded by Zee Ahmad (bass, banjo, guitar and vocals) and Ben Blaine (guitar, banjo, piano and vocals) in the aftermath of various personal misfortunes – including “death, distance, snow and global economic meltdown” – the winter of 2011 found the pair teaming up with cellist CJ Lodge and violinist and viola player Lyllou Chevalier to form The Glue Ensemble and esconcing themselves in Ben’s Mum’s house where, in just five days, they recorded the twelve songs that make up We Used To Live Round Here. Recorded live as much as possible, it was mixed and mastered the following summer before further changes in circumstances meant that the whole project was shelved until now – but it’s most definitely been worth the wait.

The piano of ‘The More Loving One’ emerges from a cold, misty night as Ben’s careworn lyric tells of heartache and heartbreak, while the strings and horn curl around the melody like brambles in a frosty hedgerow. An almost military drum underpins ‘My Morning Pages’; its slow strings and a plaintive banjo which skitters around the fretboard punctuate a stop-start descending riff, while the almost-tango of the middle eight is a real attention-grabber.

A slow waltz imbues the love letter lyric of ‘Some Notes From My Hospital Bed’ with a hazy, sedated feel; there’s a choir of sorts in here, at once childlike and very grown-up in its arrangement over the steady heartbeat of Zee’s sturdy double bass, around which tangled strings and horns bob and weave.

The circular string-driven riff of ‘Death Of A Civil Servant’ sounds as if it should be backing a barbershop doo-wop quartet, instead the lyric paints a razor-sharp word picture of a stereotypical civil servant quietly falling apart under the pressure of the monotony of everyday office life. ‘Human Resources’ is its logical counterpart and one can almost imagine the protagonist of ‘Death Of A Civil Servant’ being pushed further towards his untimely demise as a result of one too many office meetings with HR droids. The song’s coda, though, is a thing of low key beauty, spiralling ever downwards towards its sad, full stop ending.

Lyllou’s intimidatingly fruity string arrangements run through ‘The Devil In The Garden’, a manifesto for leaving the lawnmower locked in the shed if ever there was one and, I believe, a highlight of the band’s live shows. H.P. Lovecraft comes to suburbia, casting a gleeful malevolance over hearth and home; if you lived in the house on the front cover of Fairport Convention’s Unhalfbricking it would be like stepping outside to find that the lovely mature tree had somehow transformed into a 50m tall Cthulhu and wanted a word with you. In its final stages the song’s urgent riffing brings it all to a suitably unsavoury end as the Cthulhu-tree chases you down the avenue, waving shears, secateurs and other horticultural implements at your fleeing form.

‘A Polite Announcement’ is just that: a short, spoken-word reminder that, if you were listening to this album on vinyl, which you’re not, you’d need to turn the record over at this point. It’s mildly amusing in a way vaguely reminiscent of something you might find on an album by Ivor Cutler or Vivian Stanshall.

‘Soft And Low’ gets the proceedings back under way with a rhythmic ebb and flow between banjo, piano and strings. From the PR notes, I gather that this was one of the Glue Ensemble’s first compositions during the snowy winter of 2011, a song which “captured the fragility of the moment” and finds Ben and Zee playing instruments which neither had previously picked up before.

‘Love Like Glue’ has a gloriously appealing ramshackle charm: a distant drum kit tripping over its own feet in an attempt to keep up with an improbable time signature while an impatient banjo frowns sternly at it, backing singers who appear to be mounting a coup on Ben’s vocals and a ragtime band wandering through the middle eight, after which it all coalesces for a brief moment before coming, well, unglued, again. Impressive finish, though, with everyone more or less in the same place at the same time.

Xylophone and strummed banjo lead the way into the uptempo ‘Bitter Cut’, which is either an anti-authority anthem or a paean to the healing powers of toast, marmalade and breakfast in general. It’s made all the more, dare I say, radio friendly by the inclusion of a spoken word overdub in the coda which lovingly recreates and simultaneously pokes fun at the Shipping Forecast as the song floats off into the sunset.

Some well-crafted wordplay is at the heart of the lyric for ‘London Fields’ and finds the band sounding surprisingly close to chamber-pop. It’s an unashamedly romantic portrait of a particular district in the borough of Hackney which, if you’ve ever been there, you may find hard to square with the reality of some of its less salubrious parts – although, in its defence, a sunny afternoon in the park can be a pleasant way to while away the hours.

It’s followed by the appropriately titled ‘Paper Bullets’ which seems to be inspired by The Third Man; there’s a finely judged note of anguish in Ben’s performance which is entirely in keeping with the references to the classic film noir. Lyllou’s viola and CJ’s cello are as tightly-knit as Holly Martins and Anna Schmidt and the snare drum makes a fine job of mimicking the rattle of gunshot. The album rounds out with its title track; a subdued but atmospheric piece punctuated with horns, handclaps and harmonicas, the very cinematic feel of ‘We Used To Live Round Here’ not only reflects Ben’s background in filmmaking but also brings the album to a satisfying close. If it was a vinyl record, it would be very tempting to flip it over and put the needle back at the start of the first side.

We Used To Live Round Here captures a certain mood, a quintessential suburban British melancholia infused with a resolute optimism and a burning belief in the power of music. Catharsis is often the spur for some of humanity’s finest works of art, although it carries with it the risk of self-indulgent navel-gazing: something which The Glue Ensemble has managed to bypass completely. The result is an album which is simultaneously bleak yet optimistic, intricate but accessible and altogether a hugely enjoyable listen.

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Originally posted at Folk Radio UK (12 February 2015)

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