The Boats – Ballads of the Darkroom
Posted In: Andrew Hargreaves, Ballads of the Darkroom, Brendan Moore, Craig Tattersall, Danny Norbury, Our Small Ideas, The Boats, The Boats - Ballads of the Darkroom
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Ballads of the Darkroom is the third and final part of the Ballads trilogy. And it is from the darkroom: this is a collection of images half-developed and others left floating in the sink. The album collects alternate versions, outtakes and remixes from the stellar Ballads of the Research Department on 12k. So, the good news is that while it may be the end of the Ballads trilogy, it is never the exit of the research department for The Boats. For those who have enjoyed the series thus far, Darkroom is a fitting denouement.
Once you hit play it takes all of 8 seconds and that first atomic drop of tape hiss to realise we are in Boats land. From there, the “The Ballad of Bb” develops for a little over a minute and then disappears into the ether. It’s reminiscent of those slices of melody that are pastiched together to make Research Department, but this one is just that, a slice and nothing more. And that’s not a bad thing – 90 seconds of Boats loveliness is still enough to grab you by the heartstrings. “The Ballad of Underachievement” and “The Ballad for Underachievement” are other negatives that were never exposed. But, again, neither piece feels incomplete and that sense of feeling complete despite their brevity really does highlight the workmanlike construction of Research Department.
The early version of “Ballad of Achievement” gives a glimpse of a very different version of Research Department: rather than swelling into a grand introduction as it does on the album proper, here it more gently ripples rather than builds. Norbury figures more prominently in the mix for this version and a delicate piano drives the rhythm while dub percolations never fully build.
By the time we hear “Ballad of Failure (early)”, it’s clear that at some point Research Department invited bolder strokes and that was the album we got. Ballads of the Darkroom maybe the first companion piece to an album that also seems to serve as the comedown piece from the album its spins out from.
“The Ballad for the Maltings Floor” is the album’s centrepiece, literally and creatively. This is one of those songs that nobody else could have written and the ease with which it blends mournful cello, percolating rhythms, dub hiss, and a shimmering piano melody is a study in a shared consciousness by a group of musicians who are completely in tune with each other.
“The Ballad of Omission” features a snappy beat delivered via live drums. Despite the forcefulness of the beat, the track highlights some of the more space rock moments from Research Department.
Then we get two remixes: one from The Humble Bee, one from TLO, both of which stretch and decay the source material. While it is interesting to hear the individual takes on the song, if anything, the remixes serve to show how malleable yet indestructible the source material is: a Boats melody by any other name is still a Boats melody.
When Andrew Hargreaves released his solo Defragment project, it came out as three parts; one central album and two companion pieces that documented the excess, the errors, and the edits. The Boats Ballads trilogy has functioned much the same way. One would think that all that documentation would ruin any sense of mystery to the work. Instead, what this particular trilogy has served to highlight is that while the melodies may seem effortless, the songwriting, the production, the arranging – it all takes work. But the good thing is that, as with anything The Boats create, it always feels like a genuine labour of love.
- Brendan Moore for Fluid Radio