Today sees the New Zealand release of The Sparrow, the third album by Lawrence Arabia. It's a stunner - lead single Travelling Shoes is a reminder/showcase for the Lawrence Arabia sound, going back to when he was pulling double duty, releasing his debut solo album and as a member of The Reduction Agents. But Travelling Shoes cleverly points to where the sound is going - as well as pointing back.
The Sparrow was created with the help of Connan Mockasin (bass) and Elroy Finn (drums). From there strings and horns were added and though you get a feel of the arrangement flair on the opening track (the single I linked to above) the album plays out like a song-cycle, a considered set of songs that are meant to be together and to play out in the chosen running order.
James Milne (the man behind Lawrence Arabia/that is Lawrence Arabia) arranged the horns and strings and there is a superb lineup of talent helping to realise these ideas. Andrew Keoghan (violin), Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper (violin), Rachel Wells (cello), Toby Laing (cornet, flugelhorn, baritone horn), Daniel Yeabsley (clarinet), Tom Watson (trumpet) and Hayden Eastmond-Mein (saxophone, backing vocals). All deserve mentioning for their fine contributions.
And there's such a gorgeous waft to pieces like The Bisexual and The 03, the mood of the song dictated by a groove that whisks the tune away, meandering melody lines floating on to fill their own space.
In particular Elroy Finn's perfect Ringo Starr-esque drumming on The Listening Times and Lick Your Wounds is a treat, the correct way to play for the song but showing character as well as driving the song. And you'll hear a burst of a guitar solo that has Milne all but aping Neil Finn - a deft explosion of sound.
Early Kneecappings is hypnotic with a Magical Mystery Tour string line and a rhythm section that has all but sprung up from Atom Heart Mother, the bob and nod from the bass and drums buoying the musical mantra.
There is a level of care and sophistication in the crafting and delivery of these songs that instantly rewards - it is all at once an album that immediately reminds of so many wonderful pop-music moments (the first two Lawrence Arabia albums included) but is also off and away in search of something far beyond quirky, happy pop music.
Where Chant Darling was a perfect set of songs born from so many listens to the finer ideas offered by John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ray Davies, The Sparrow has - as its title and cover suggest - a darkness to it. And humour. There's always been a sly, subversive element to Milne's music but it's both more overt and subtler on this album. The mournful horns of Dessau Rag, just a hint of something sinister rather than merely something cynical, the Abbey Road harmonies of Bicycle Racing, a piano ostinato doing the work - the vocals existing all but in their own space, their own place, just enough of a hint of a marriage between the music and words to remind you there's a tune peeking through.
And finally Legends, the album's closer. Finn is no longer Ringo on the kit, it's the sound of McCartney from those imperfectly perfect early post-Beatles albums (McCartney, Ram, Band on the Run) and sure, you could point to Serge Gainsbourg and Scott Walker too for ideas of how these songs take their shape from pop but then stretch out and away from any obvious confines.
The Sparrow won't win over everyone who loved the Lawrence Arabia and Chant Darling albums - but there's no reason why fans of those song-ideas wouldn't be drawn to this work.
I think it's his finest set of songs, dressed up most beautifully in the correct set of evening wear.
The Sparrow shows development, maturity, forward thinking, seamless integration of influences, the continuation of a unique narrative voice, evocative - haunting, even - musical phrasing, a new level of brilliance from, in my opinion, New Zealand's finest songwriter working in contemporary music. And close to most importantly it offers nine new songs in 35 minutes. That is perfect album length. There's a deftness to this album. At every step. In every way.
And this is, for now, the ultimate showcase for the extraordinary talents of Milne and his supporting cast.
Go and buy the album today - and be amazed. Be prepared to hit repeat and let these songs live in your ears for days on end. Be prepared for a new standard. Be ready for the best album released by a local artist this year.
And to celebrate the new album there is a tour.
Now, since I love this album so much - and thanks to the kind people releasing it - I have three great prizes to offer. So maybe you'd like a chance at winning the album before you buy it.
I have THREE copies of the album to offer up. One for a Wellington reader, one for a Christchurch reader and one for a Dunedin reader. The reason I've allocated them to those regions is because each CD will come with two tickets to that city's show.
So write in and tell me which prize-pack you'd like to win, Wellington, Christchurch or Dunedin.
You need to leave a comment below telling me why you'd like to win. And you must mention the city you'd like to attend the show in. I'll pick one winner for each city and notify the prizewinners.
Finally, for those seeking more information about the album there's a three-part behind-the-scenes set of vignettes regarding the making of The Sparrow available to watch on YouTube, see here, here and here.
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