Sunday, 5 July 2015

Born Again In Birmingham


In my mind, there are two bands called the Nightingales, both from the Midlands and with a frontman named Robert Lloyd. The first one formed in 1979 from the remnants of the Prefects. They gained a cult following and recorded no fewer than eight John Peel sessions before Lloyd embarked on a new career with his backing band, the New Four Seasons. Then we have the 21st century Nightingales whom I see live on such a regular basis that I've come to regard them as friends, even though I've never spoken to Robert Lloyd. To be honest, I find him a tad intimidating - but then who wouldn't, with his towering frame and deadpan attitude? Admittedly their gigs can be shambolic - in an entertaining way of course - especially the infamous show at the Wagon & Horses last year with Lloyd swigging whisky to the point that he could barely stay upright, prompting me to confiscate his microphone stand before he hurt someone with it. But you always forgive friends for these minor indiscretions. When this incarnation (re-)formed in 2004 it was clearly intended to be a new project rather than to resurrect past glories, as can be seen from the setlists I've pilfered from the stage over the years. The only early song regularly played is "The Crunch".

Do you find that you never ask your drinking pals what they do at work? I'm the same with the Nightingales. I see them in small venues so often that their recorded output sits on my shelf untouched. When I think of their 21st century work it tends to blur into one long (albeit great) album. I'm expecting this one to slot in neatly with the others. Its title is a common three-word phrase as with previous releases ("For Fuck's Sake", "No Love Lost", "Insult To Injury") but there is a noticeable difference before it's even hit my turntable. Rather than the usual chaotic, colourful artwork by David Yates, I'm faced with a stark black sleeve showing what appears to be a scan of Robert Lloyd's brain. This sets the tone for something more inward looking than your standard 'Gales fare.

I wouldn't go so far as to call it soul searching but on some of the tracks Lloyd is certainly pondering his place in the world. On "Ripe Old Age" he talks of getting old and fat; on the 1950s-tinged "I Itch" he complains that he can't get comfortable, not just physically but with the reality he has to face on waking every morning. The introspection is most prominent on the self-parody "Gales Doc", where Lloyd takes the role of a journalist interviewing the band about their approach to songwriting. He mentions how the band often "go quieter and quieter two thirds of the way through the number while I mumble something over the top. Then I give them some kind of verbal or hand signal and they go loud again." How true. I've noticed them do this at least twice at every gig they've played. The journalist calls Lloyd arrogant for describing his band as "sonically more interesting" than others who just "knock off three-minute chunks". I suspect he is trying to pre-empt critics who have picked up on his boastful attitude, but it's also possible that he could be praising the variety on this album compared with previous 'Gales releases. The spoken word delivery reminds me of Half Man Half Biscuit numbers such as "Breaking News" or "Twenty Four Hour Garage People". In fact this is how I imagine Nigel Blackwell's mob would go about a Nightingales satire.

For me, the standout track is "The Man That Time Forgot", which at first seems to be the name of a film that went straight to DVD. But you begin to wonder if the man in question is Lloyd himself, and it's his own life and relationships with those around him that are falling into the void. Over a riff that Tony Iommi would envy, he finds himself in a pitched battle with drummer extraordinaire Fliss Kitson. She screams "You're talking but you're not saying anything" over every word he utters, turning it into what would have been Bikini Kill's best song. He tries to retaliate, saying he is always ready for a fight but eventually concedes "It's over, you got what you want." Kitson 1, Lloyd 0.

Anyone who has witnessed the band live will know that Kitson's drumming is probably the most ferocious you'll find on the circuit right now, but it's good to see her stepping up to the front as well. She gets a song of her own, "Stroke Of Genius", which along with the preceding "For Different Folks" manages to out-psych even Psychic TV. In fact all of the band make noticeable contributions, despite preconceptions that it's very much a vehicle for the frontman's dry sense of humour. Alan Apperley is the other member remaining from the original line-up, and alongside the aforementioned Sabbath riffing and his trademark surf guitar, he dishes up slabs of Gene Vincent and '70s glam. The whole thing is held together by bassist and producer Andreas Schmid, who has served time with Faust - a band who moved well beyond the confines of the Krautrock tag originally pinned upon them. He brings a similar approach to this album by pulling in influences from all over the shop without making it sound like a rehash of old ideas.

Incidentally, it would appear that since the recording of the album, Apperley has left the band. I'm not sure why or whether this is permanent but on the strength of recent gigs, Jim Smith (of Brum weirdos Betty & The Id) is a sterling replacement.

36 minutes seem to fly past in no time and as we approach the end, Lloyd's acerbic wit rears its head again in "Great British Exports", where he tries to list the things that made this country great. The best he can come up with is Mumford & Sons, "Midsomer Murders" and the slave trade. Is he suggesting that this record is the only great thing to come out of Britain? He's being arrogant again and in this case his swagger is justified. How many other bands can you name who split up, reform a decade later and then after a further decade release their best album?
Nightingales 10, rest of the world 0.

No comments: