Fend for Yourself

Fend for Yourself - camp fire

Back in June the Crotchety Man blog carried a review of Magnolia, which was then the most recent album by The Pineapple Thief. I gave it a rating of 3.5 out of 5 but reserved the right to adjust that as I got to know it better. Over the last few months, though, it has become clear that I didn’t really do justice to that album. Whenever a track from Magnolia has come up in the all-songs-shuffle test it has always been an unexpected delight. So, when The Pineapple Thief released another album in August, the Crotchety ears were called on to analyse and assess that new offering.

The new album is called Your Wilderness and it compares very favourably with Magnolia. It’s a little less varied than the previous album but the melodies are just as sweet, the keyboards every bit as luscious and there’s some magical pattering percussion from guest drummer Gavin Harrison (of Porcupine Tree and King Crimson). As a taster for the new album I’ve chosen Fend for Yourself as my Track of the Week.

Actually, either of the two singles from the album (In Exile, No Man’s Land) would have given a better impression of the album as a whole. Fend for Yourself is one of the slower tracks and at 3 minutes 43 seconds it is the shortest of them all. But I couldn’t resist the mellow tones of John Helliwell’s clarinet as it takes up the tune and flutters over gentle piano chords.

In the song an icy emptiness has been overlaid with suppressed bitterness.

Go fend for yourself.
You will find me frozen in stone.
With a whisper you had flown
And never looked back.

This verse is sung twice but that’s all the lyrics there are. That first line seems peculiarly weak, as if it has been sanitised for public performances. Or perhaps the singer’s primitive, instinctive expression of anger has been censored by a higher brain function. And yet the instruments construct a comforting cocoon of sound that puts sweetness in the bitter cup and stirs it with a spoon. Sugar and cream in a dark roast coffee. Delicious and stimulating.

Fend for Yourself - Bruce Soord

Bruce Soord of The Pineapple Thief

I think it is their ability to blend the textures and timbres of different instruments that gives The Pineapple Thief their unique appeal. In my Magnolia review I picked out the sound of a muted trumpet for special mention and it is the wooden, reedy sound of the clarinet that makes Fend for Yourself stand out.

The more I listen to this band the more I like them. So I’m going to take this opportunity to raise Magnolia to 4.5 on the Crotchety Appreciation Scale and heartily recommend Your Wilderness. If Fend for Yourself works for you so, too, will the rest of the album.

Magnolia

Magnolia - face

It’s prog, Jim, but not as we know it.

Magnolia is the latest album by The Pineapple Thief, which is generally regarded as a progressive rock band. But that categorisation sits uneasily with Crotchety Man. When I think of ‘prog’ my first thoughts are of Yes, Genesis and King Crimson and then ELP, Gentle Giant and perhaps Jethro Tull. The songs on Magnolia aren’t quite like those bands’ compositions and yet they fit the definition of prog rock too well to be excluded.

So, what is it that characterises prog rock? The most succinct description I know says that prog rock is “a mostly British attempt to elevate rock music to new levels of artistic credibility”. It’s high-brow rock. In their pursuit of greater sophistication the early prog rock bands took many ideas from classical music. They wrote long tracks and collected them together on albums with a common theme. They used keyboards or traditional orchestras to create big, symphonic soundscapes. They incorporated long instrumental passages. And they weren’t afraid to use complex harmonies and rhythms. Prog rock was music to be appreciated for its technical merits as well as its more visceral impact.

Magnolia isn’t really like that. There are no tracks on the album longer than 4 minutes 20 seconds and there are no instrumentals. It’s not an album that could be accused of being pretentious. On the other hand, the band does use orchestral instruments, there are some intricate rhythms and, overall, it does raise rock music a notch above the average sophistication level of most rock bands. Is it prog rock? Well, sort of. It’s what Wikipedia labels ‘new prog’.

Magnolia - band

To my ear the songs on Magnolia sound like a cross between recent Radiohead and Muse – thoughtfully constructed art rock with outbreaks of crashing hard rock. The first track, Simple As That, is a straightforward hard rock piece but with a vocal very reminiscent of Radiohead‘s Thom Yorke. It is followed by another rocker, Alone At Sea, that sounds to me like something by the indie rock band Two Door Cinema Club. The next two tracks are quieter and more melodic. Don’t Tell Me introduces strings for the first time and builds to an anthemic ending. The title track is a late night festival crowd song, one for gently waving Magnolia flowers and singing along dreamily as the bass rolls forward toward the coming dawn.

Next comes the slow, lush Seasons Past with a haunting piano/synth theme and plenty of sensual strings bringing past times reverberating into the present. And then we’re Coming Home, but it’s a journey that we seem reluctant to take, a road that is taking us back to pay for our sins. The One You Left To Die picks up the beat again, telling a story of regret after leaving a loved one. Perhaps that is the sin we must atone for. Then Breathe crashes in with flailing guitar chords as if a medic is frantically pumping a ribcage while we can only watch and quietly pray that our friend will come back to life.

From Me is a short mournful interlude about a dear relative who has been taken to an old folks home far away “for the dying days”. It’s rather too slow and melancholy for my taste, though. In complete contrast, Sense of Fear starts with a machine-gun guitar that takes us into an ominous hard rock song, although it’s not clear what terrible fate is about to befall the two of us. Perhaps it’s just A Loneliness that awaits us as we are serenaded by a choir and our loving relationship slowly goes up in flames. Then, finally, the Bond between us is broken. All that’s left is the wash of sad orchestral sounds and a plaintive muted trumpet bewailing our loss.

Magnolia - sculpture

Magnolia Sculpture – Himalayan Gardens, 2013

So, this ‘new prog’ thing … Do I like it? Is it any good? Well, yes, I think so. Magnolia was added to the Crotchety Collection quite recently and it has settled in quite nicely. I’d rate it 3.5 out of 5 – happy to have it, will play it from time to time, but won’t swoon over it. The acid test is to see how those tracks affect me when they come up on an all-songs shuffle, but it’s too early yet to know what that will bring.

Postscript

A new album by The Pineapple Thief is due for release on 12th August; it’s called Your Wilderness.