Ali Whitton and the Broke Record Players
A Failed Attempt At Something Worth Saying
These are interesting times for musicians. With the recent shake up at EMI likely to precipitate a cull of artists and staff and the increasing probability of similar events unfolding within some of the other major labels, it's all too easy to surmise that it is going to be much harder for new acts to get any kind of significant backing unless they already have a decent public profile. We're looking at a new era of bands putting out low-budget records on small labels to cult followings to a much greater degree than in previous times - witness Duels' decision to issue their gargantuan second album on the ThisIsFakeDIY imprint for an indication of where things may be going.
Which leads nicely to the disc before me; after a fruitless search for a label willing to take him on, Northallerton's Ali Whitton took it upon himself to use his life savings to self-finance the recording of this, his debut album - and then, after further failed attempts at hawking the results around the companies, to finance its release as well. A brave, brave move, and one which requires either total belief in one's abilities or total blissful ignorance of the realities of this whole sorry business. After mere moments of listening to 'A Failed Attempt At Something Worth Saying' it's evident that Whitton falls into the former camp, and deservedly, thrillingly so.
His stock in trade is the downbeat musing on romance; sifting through the lyrics of these twelve tracks it's easy to assume that the poor lad has had a hard time of it when it comes to love, and although male singer-songwriters with an acoustic guitar and furrowed brow are ubiquitous to the point of tedium these days, to bunch Whitton in with the Faulkners, Johnsons and Morrisons of this world would be missing the point completely. This is by no means easy listening - both lyrically and musically there are moments of absolute darkness, yet conversely it's an eminently marketable album; every song draws the listener into Whitton's head or heart by degrees, and there are times when things become positively filmic. Sam Stockbridge's wordless coda towards the end of 'The Good Things Are The Enemy' has a resigned montage feel that, had the song featured on the 'Once' soundtrack, would have seen Whitton picking up that Academy Award; likewise Naomi Abbt's gorgeous viola line at a similar point in 'Lost Cause' conspires further to bring a lump to the throat.
An acute honesty and self-awareness pervades the songwriting, and it's something Whitton refers to on occasions throught the disc; the sophisticated and catchy country-rock of the title track sees him dismissing those who "don't believe that what I write and what I feel walk hand in hand", whilst in 'The Good Things Are The Enemy' he notes "I wrap myself in thoughts until they smother me". The stately epic 'In My World' keeps up the theme as he asks of his companion "say what you mean, or just don't speak at all". By the crushing end of the track this honesty has left the young singer utterly alone, his stark final words "there's nothing waiting for me when I die".
This drive for the genuine also informs Whitton's singing style - utterly devoid of pretence or artifice, his often frail vocals are infused with a naive charm that resides very much on this side of the Atlantic rather than indulging in redundant americanisms - after all, it's hard to take an artist at face value when you don't believe the accent they're using, and happily the Yorkshireman rejects such an ersatz approach. His trembling whisper is at its most affecting during the delicately doleful pair of 'The Gun Goes Bang' and 'Lost Cause' - the latter, coming after the bruising theatrics of 'The Storm', is a poignant, subtle gathering of midnight thoughts as another lies sleeping elsewhere.
That's not to say there aren't moments of high melodrama - 'Waiting For Morning To Come' flits between damaged hesitant arpeggios and prog-toned high-gain wailing, while 'The Storm' lives emphatically up to its name - Abbt furiously whistles up and down scales in tandem with Lee Potter's heavy fretwork leaving Whitton howling at the top of his lungs to be heard over the squall. 'Misery Needs Company' is the record's standout track, a vignette of a chilly morning fog hinting at matters unresolved before the band blows everything away in fuzz and fury, underpinning Whitton's mantra of "They'll be sorry, sorry, sorry!". Yet these moments are not the disc's darkest hour - 'The Cruelty That Becomes You' takes that prize, infused with a seething latent brutality made more sinister by Tim Corbridge's eerie lap steel. Over an austere backing Whitton rages internally: "I hope you see my slaughter, and my death bereaves your soul / and may your heart learn how to suffer through the bleakness of it all". Ouch. Nonetheless, by the conclusion of the unashamedly pretty closer 'Poet and a Spaceman' even the hardest of hearts will have melted as Whitton whispers "I want to be the reason that you curl up your toes". It's a refreshingly optimistic song to finish things, and a welcome moment of levity given the heartbreak and hurt of the main body of the disc.
So then, not an easy record to listen to, but one that rewards in spades the attention it so patently deserves - the second half in particular is devastating in its emotional progression. Buy it, and spread the word - this is something worth saying.
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