Letters to a Scattered Family
(IR 005/IR 005 CD, Feb 1990, Lp/Cd)
by Bob Stanley (1990)
WHEN Richard Brautigan, probably the greatest American writer of the last 30 years, died in 1984, all the obituaries could find to say about him was “The Beatles were fans of his”. Praise by association must be niggling Martyn Bates these days, as one half of Eyeless In Gaza who produced at least two stellar albums in the early Eighties, but are now chiefly remembered for writing a song that The Pale Saints named themselves after.
Last year’s “Love Smashed On A Rock” saw Bates on his best form for some while, a collection of magical folk-based love songs that became a much fawned-over item in Belgium, Germany and parts of darkest Croydon. On “Letters To A Scattered Family” Martyn has stuck with the same producer, Paul Sampson of Primitives fame, and taken the best part of “Love Smashed”, twisted and distorted them, and come up with something seven times better. This time the folk undercoat has been overlaid with a mixture of musical styles so varied it’s positively schizophrenic.
The troubadour approach is still evident of much of “Letters”; “City All Of Strangers” is straight from “Parsley Sage Rosemary And Thyme”, while “For Love, Waiting To Die” lightens the downbeat lyric with some singularly pretty Christmas bells. Elsewhere it’s a very different story, “Snow Rages” is huge, a six-and-a-half minute opus with shifting tectonic plates of phased guitars, psychotic harmonica, and an Oriental music box of a verse. “Your Jewelled Footsteps” is more bizarre still: a pneumatic drill rhythm section lurks beneath a looming black cloud of a melody that mutates into a chorus reminiscent of Paul Anka’s “Diana”. The most incredible thing about this juxtaposing of musical genre and instruments as diverse as clarinet, banjo and feedback is that it works.
Two things hold the songs in place. Sampson’s production on the last LP tended towards black and white passages of apocalyptic guitar not always sitting easily alongside pitterpat acoustics, but on “Letters” he’s blurred the edges, softened the joins so that the pieces fall perfectly into place. Secondly there‘s Martyn Bates’ voice while far removed from the sandpaper-in-the-brain wailing of early Eyeless it’s still remarkably intense, a compelling instrument. Simply, it oozes emotion.
Martyn Bates has carved himself a niche in music so distinctive yet so out on a limb that it’s hard to pinpoint who “Letters To A Scattered Family” will appeal to, There are links with masters like Tim Buckley and Laura Nyro, possibly “Wilder” period Cope, obvious elements of Eyeless In Gaza. But on a song as moonstruck, melodic and moving as “I’ll Wrap Your Hopes” there are no comparisons necessary. The Pale Saints are fans. So am I, and you need this record.