There is No Perfect Place
It’s been two years since Memory Drawings’ beguiling debut, Music for Another Loss. This follow-up sees hammered dulcimer-player Joel Hanson and his cohorts (Richard Adams from Hood and The Declining Winter and Sarah Kemp from Lanterns on the Lake) tapping largely the same musical vein again. They do take some small steps in different directions but, as they say, if it ain’t broke…
Brief opener ‘Back to the Moment I’ sets out the band’s stall. It starts with Hanson’s dulcimer tapping out a simple, arcing melody, just enough space between the notes emphasise the resonating twangs of the instrument and their ethereal overlapping. Soon it is joined by arpeggiating acoustic guitar and a violin countermelody tracing an arc roughly the mirror image of the dulcimer’s. This is the essence of Memory Drawings – wistful pieces imbued with pastoral English folk. Hanson’s playing brings other traditions into the mix as well. The hammered dulcimer does have a history in English folk music – particularly in East Anglia and Northumbria – but the sparseness with which Hanson plays it often more closely recalls its place in Central European and Central/South Asian tradition. In the prolonged ringing and twang of the strings can be heard the stretching of steppes and deserts, particularly on tracks like ‘Then and Now’. Accompanied there by soft but propulsive percussion, the instrument manages to be open and ambient but also, thanks to its own percussive qualities, solid and mobile. Imagine it as a soundtrack to travelling, trekking across the foothills of the Himalayas. The Chinese-style tremolo melody later in the piece only aids the image.
It’s no disrespect to Adams and Kemp to say that it’s Hanson that is the main draw here. Without him the pieces would be pleasant enough, but the dulcimer takes them to another level. It’s not just that the instrument is one more rarely heard, although it carries plenty of interest just because of that, but it’s perfectly suited to Memory Drawings’ melancholic folk, and Hanson’s playing is expert throughout the album. The globe-trotting nature of the instrument is captivating enough, effortlessly connecting cross-continental traditions via the band’s simple style, distilling various folk musics to a minimalistic palette and allowing contrasting elements to rise out of that, without contradicting each other. But the dulcimer also has a naturally world-weary quality about it, as if all that travelling hasn’t been quite as satisfying as it sounds. Nowhere is this clearer than on the appropriately titled ‘There is a World Without You’, in which the twangs of the dulcimer sound rougher and more strained and the acoustic guitar thrums along despondently. This sadness has always been a part of Memory Drawings (you need look no further than their album titles). It’s a comfortable sadness though, without urgency or anger, just plucking along, content and reconciled to the fact that, indeed, there is no perfect place.
The rest of the band do get their chances to shine, especially in the fuller, (slightly) rockier tracks that are a new addition for this album. ‘The Island of the Day Before’ is essentially a piece of chamber-pop, complete with breathy, barely intelligible singing, and driven along by drums and staccato playing from Kemp, who at the end trades melodies with Adams’ guitar whilst Hanson is firmly relegated to the background. There are shades of Talk Talk’s melancholic songs on Spirit of Eden, or of gentle folk-rock bands like Kemp’s own Lanterns on the Lake. A series of vocal versions on the bonus disc (including a re-working of ‘The Island of the Day Before’) featuring the ghostly tones of Yvonne Bruner.
The bonus disc, available to the first 100 buyers, also comes with a set of remixes by various well-loved artists from the ambient/ambient-folk scene. The album itself is, of course, just fine on its own – although short, it feels entirely complete, and rounds off neatly with ‘Back to the Moment II’, reprising some themes from the opener. The remixes, however, do offer some fun new perspectives on the music. William Ryan Fritch and Benoît Pioulard are particularly appropriate matches for Memory Drawings. The former takes the title track and emphasises the strings whilst adding a sheen of electronics, teasing the track closer to his own brand of ambient psych-folk. The latter adds lo-fi tape mess and manipulations to ‘I Could Live Like This Forever’, taking a track barely a minute long and dragging it out to four minutes. In so doing he marries the sadness of the original with the kind of world-weary mundanity that characterised his album Hymnal. But, like Memory Drawings, he finds something beautiful, even sublime in it. They both also prove that Memory Drawings’ music can work in a setting not entirely acoustic, despite that being a defining characteristic of the album. Talvihorros does that more intrusively to ‘Coldstream’, drenching the track in washes that are at times almost industrial, although the acoustic instruments are always there, struggling away.
For an album that generates a large part of its magic from connections across geography and genre, the collection of remixes and reworks seems and entirely appropriate way to sign off, even if in some cases they make those connections a little more confrontational than they appear in the album proper.