FIFTY3 FRIDAYS: MORTON VALENCE REVISITED
Friday the thirteenth, eh. The last one was back in November and it led me to discover that a morbid fear of this date existed or, not for short, paraskevidekatriaphobia. Forgive any hint of superstition here, but today’s column deviates from a diet of mostly new music to dust off a couple of early releases from one of my all-time favourite bands, Morton Valence. If the name is familiar to you, then I hope you will enjoy the reminiscences. If it’s new to you, perhaps you too will become a fan.
Not to be confused with the Gloucestershire village with an extra ‘e’ in the title, Morton Valence has been around for two decades now, starting out under the name of Florida (nothing to do either with the US rapper of a similar vintage, Flo Rida) and releasing an early album, Bob and Veronica's Big Move. Morphing into Morton Valence, the band won FOPP’s Best New Band Award in 2006, signing a recording contract before going its own way to form its own label, the choicely named Bastard Recordings. MV put out six albums under this imprint before switching to the Cow Pie label for the vinyl release of Black Angel Drifter last year.
Having operated as a five-piece for much of its career, Morton Valence is currently centred around the fine vocal pairing of its founders, Robert 'Hacker' Jessett and Anne Gilpin; two contrasting musicians whose voices also somehow blend impeccably. Over the years the band’s sound has evolved from origins of dance and electronica towards what is now aptly labelled as “urban country”. Today Morton Valence offers an affectionate take on the country genre, mixing Americana with South London folk tales in a compelling, soft or loud, and frequently louche manner. You can hear hints of the sound to come in the first two albums I came to love.
Bob and Veronica Ride Again (2009)
The stylish London-based five-piece, Morton Valence, had been marked out by many tastemakers as an interesting band on the cusp of greatness; early promise now richly fulfilled with the release of Bob and Veronica Ride Again. It’s an album you want to listen to over and over, from start to finish, without skipping a track; the perfect antidote, you could say, to the ubiquitous playlist. The CD version is accompanied by a charming, witty, and sometimes crazy novella, all financed by the band’s own fans who bought shares in the project.
Bob and Veronica Ride Again tells the story of, well, Bob and Veronica. Two star-crossed, most probably ill-matched lovers set loose in the dull landscape of South London yet still able to swing from chandeliers, get down to boogie, fall down the stairs and camp among the crickets. It is the combination of the ordinary with the extraordinary both lyrically and musically that makes Bob and Veronica such a creative success. There’s something quintessentially English about the band’s urban tales, yet with an Englishman, Irish woman and three South Americans, Morton Valence have a truly international line-up. Again, this combination of cultures adds richness and diversity to their music.
Vocalist and synth player, Anne Gilpin, has a delicious, breathy vocal style a little reminiscent of Julee Cruise at the Roadhouse a la Twin Peaks. The connection to the cult favourite does not end there. Much of the album would fit very comfortably, if that’s quite the right word, in a David Lynch soundtrack. Main man, Robert ‘Hacker’ Jessett, shares the vocal duties and contributes guitar, trumpet and even megaphone. Jessett’s sometimes gruff, sometimes crooner style works especially well on the duets with Gilpin which punctuate the album. This is carefully crafted pop balladry gilded with electro overtones and shaded by sharp infectious rhythms.
It is difficult to highlight individual songs because they are worked so well into the overall frame. “Chandelier” takes a familiar descending chord sequence and decorates it with an epic and emotive arrangement. “Sequin Smile” is dark, broody, sexy while “Ordinary Pleasures” is at times pure lounge music. There are some great dance tunes — the stomping “Funny Peculiar” and fabulous bass groove of “Falling Down the Stairs” — while the country-tinged “John Young” is highlighted by Jessett’s guitar noir, the strings damaged in deliberate elongated arpeggios. The poignant “Hang it on the Wall” sits well with the mournful trumpet interlude in “I must go” which then dissolves into a cacophonic conclusion. Finally, “Go to Sleep” provides the perfect ending to a dark bedtime story.
The greatest task a band faces is getting heard. Morton Valence turned its back on the conventional route to market and, with fan finance, produced an absolute gem of an album, which still fully deserves to be heard by a far wider world.
Morton Valence – Me & Home James (2011)
A considerable slice of my journalistic life is spent singing the praises of relatively unknown artistes while bemoaning the plethora of me-too acts bankrolled by increasingly cautious majors. Despite ‘free to air’ social media, not a lot has changed since I wrote about this record 10 years ago. If only some of the lesser-known acts could step into the shoes of the me-toos, then we could discover what the listening public really, really wants. But let’s cheer up and be glad that there’s a place in this maddeningly unequal world for the likes of Morton Valence.
The independent-spirited London five piece has been around for some time but rose to some critical prominence in the UK and Europe on the back of a sparkling debut in 2009, Bob And Veronica Ride Again. A concept album financed by fans and presented along with an absurdist little book, it almost came with a glove marked ‘follow that.’ Two years on, the band finally has, and it’s called Me & Home James. The name comes from a long-gone London cab company, and the collection of 12 songs reek of urban mythology as it takes you on a journey across town. The title track actually dates back to MV’s original debut release under the aegis of Florida (not the rapper… OK you’ve done that already).
The debut album had an unmistakeably English feel to it, while the follow-up mixes Americana with London folk tales in a compelling, sometimes loud, often louche manner. There’s a strong element of country music shot through the record, but it’s not pastiche, more an affectionate take on the genre from the occasional off-key steel guitar to some lovingly whispered vocals. Founding band members Robert Hacker Jessett and Anne Gilpin are very much centre stage, delivering tender duets here while spitting out savage observations there. The Anglo-Colombian blend of drummer Daryl Holley and bassist Leo Fernandez adds a dance feel to proceedings, while Fernandez’ compatriot Alejo Pelaez appends subtle electronic brushstrokes to his keyboard work.
Lyrically, Morton Valence is able to combine mundane musings with seemingly incongruous commentaries that make you think as you smile. On the splendidly titled “These Were The Things I Was Thinking Of And Then You Fell Out Of The Sky”, Gilpin mixes dark thoughts among the everyday and the profound: “The old man upstairs is always snoring/I’d quite like to put my fist in his eye/Shall I walk or shall I take the train this morning/And I wonder what’s the meaning of the life”, before being liberated by an unexpected love. The title track is another standout, taking a familiar descending chord sequence and freshening it up with sharp annotations that make you feel you’re travelling in the car alongside the singer.
Fans of the live band will equally be thrilled the find the slow fuse to thrash “Man On The Corner” and the outrageously catchy, electro-driven “Sailors” here. You get a lo-fi boy-girl duet morphing into full-on psychedelia in “If You Are The River”, fond mourning for the passing of the cockney ‘sparrow’ and even a dedication to Captain Beefheart along the way. This is a rich tapestry just waiting to be unveiled. Listen and love it.
A version of these reviews first appeared on www.consequence.net
Footnote: Come in #9. On 6 August Morton Valence tweeted that there was a new album on its way.