Slow-burner ode to familial roots

Bill Ryder-Jones recorded his latest album in his childhood room.
Bill Ryder-Jones recorded his latest album in his childhood room.PHOTO: DOMINO

Since time immemorial, songs have been excellent vehicles for stories, from film-maker Harry Smith's iconic Anthology Of American Folk Music in 1952 to more recently, the allusive narratives of Joanna Newsom in her latest gem, Divers.

The trajectory of the music of Englishman Bill Ryder-Jones is also an especial one. Ex-guitarist of indie-rock band The Coral, he has led a fascinating career as a composer and a film-scorer, evocatively imagining the soundtrack for postmodernist writer Italo Calvino's classic If On A Winter's Night A Traveler for his 2011 solo debut.

His third outing, West Kirby County Primary, is closer to home, but no less ambitious.

Penned and recorded in his childhood room in his mother's house in West Kirby, Merseyside, in north-western England, it is a slow-burner, and an incandescent one.



    Bill Ryder-Jones


    4/5 stars

It is a return to one's familial roots and hometown, an unsentimental confrontation of one's mortal coil, as well as an ode to the slow, gently messed-up headiness of 1990s underground American rock.

Ryder-Jones mines the purgatory between fact and fiction, privacy and public lives.

In Daniel, a song so calmly strummed it may well be another jangly missive from the lovely band Real Estate, you don't notice the fatal undertow.

"When we lost our little boy/we tried so hard to stay together," he sings, no, whispers, from the point of his parents about the death of his younger brother, contemplating the medicated aftermath.

There is nothing showy in the deferential electric riffs and the soft insistent drumming. Instead, he unravels beneath the steel exterior.

"Like some unopened birthday card, I keep you boxed in my own unwanted memories," he delivers the sucker punch of a line.

The realisation that he once had a sibling casts the opening track in sharp perspective.

In Tell Me You Don't Love Me Watching, a lugubrious, passive- aggressive zinger, he comes to grips with the insurmountable pressure placed on him: "You see I'm nothing but an only child/I get my own way every single time/So dare you be anything less than all I need?"

Put It Down Before You Break It is a coruscating depiction of his struggles with mental illness.

"I try to keep from sinking/The words all come out wrong/But the bitterness is gone," he cracks amid sparse, midnight guitar.

Tempting as it may be to put him in the company of inveterate miserablists Nick Drake and Elliott Smith, Ryder-Jones nevertheless gleans the silver lining, or at least, a trace of the macabre humour.

You marvel at the deceptive levity in the mid-tempo catchiness of You Can't Hide A Light With The Dark, a track so wonderfully danceable, one nearly misses the domestic horror at the heart of it all.

He is spying on a former paramour at her home, letting his imagination get the better of him.

"The light's off in your bedroom/Are you sleeping? Are you with him?"

Questions mount, as you hum.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 09, 2015, with the headline 'Slow-burner ode to familial roots'. Print Edition | Subscribe