Having spent most of my working life in the professional kitchen, I can attest that ‘compliments to the chef’ are all too rare. This may not be the case in high-end establishments run by the Gordon Ramsays and Raymond Blancs of this world, but in the fair-to-middling hotels, pubs and contract catering establishments I’ve mostly devoted myself to, customer feedback has all too often been of the ‘Steak underdone’, ‘Where are our starters? It’s been half an hour’ or (my personal favourite) ‘Yuck! Is this Chantilly cream on my potato skins?’ (it was – that’ll teach me to label better!) variety. If it seems I’m not selling my culinary skills too well, I might point out in my defence that the general public is as often as parsimonious with its compliments as it is vociferous with its complaints; and even when generous with respect to the former, underpaid, harassed waiting staff aren’t necessarily minded to pass them on: they’ve got too many other things on their mind, like the thought of a cold one at the bar, or getting home in time to kiss their significant other goodnight for once, WHEN THIS FUCKING SHIFT ACTUALLY ENDS!
Thankfully I’m in a better position now. As Head Chef for a local charity, I’m face to face with my clientele on a daily basis; on generally, if not friendly then familiar, terms and know their likes and dislikes. The workload is light by catering standards and because lining my boss’s pockets isn’t a consideration, I have pretty much a free hand as long as I don’t blow my budget.
Musical artists are increasingly finding themselves in a similar position: wary of the old-school major label merry-go-round and ever more internet-savvy, many are choosing to focus their energies on building closer relationships with their now easily-accessible niche of aficionados.
So it was that within 24 hours of receiving my copy of Speak I was firing off an email to i-and-thou.com expressing my admiration for the music therein, and just a few more hours later received a reply from I and Thou mainman, Jason Hart thanking me for my comments. It’s a small thing in a way, and yet it exemplifies the appeal of the ‘new’ music industry – oft-trumpeted by Bob Lefsetz – in all its multivarious permutations, from Marillion to Amanda Palmer; the feeling of being ‘all in it together’. Marketing, selling and receiving ‘compliments to the chef’ in a direct manner heretofore impossible.
So, then; onto the music itself…
By and large, I’m not much of a fan of the kind of ‘retro-Prog’ that seems to be, if not en-vogue, then certainly a popular niche market at present. Several qualities set this album apart from the neo-Prog crowd. Hart‘s voice, whilst far from ‘strong’ in the kind of quasi-operatic sense typical of many a pomp/prog act – say a Matt Bellamy or a James LaBrie – has a quiet expressiveness to die for: Stevens Wilson and Drozd might be helpful reference points. The music too is in its way, understated. There’s complexity and depth, for sure, but nothing that might fairly be described as showboating: rhythmic and harmonic choices serve the music; flirtatious figures, tantalizing turns that invite the listener to surrender to the ebb and flow. The emphasis is firmly on melody and dynamics that drive the songs forward. It’s a very ‘up’ album, suffused with a positive vibe even in its superficially melancholy moments. Hart demonstrates skill and soul in equal measure, a balance all too rarely achieved at a time when ‘Prog’ is undergoing something of a mini revival.
Four of its five tracks clock in at over ten minutes but there’s never a sense of ideas being stretched thin. Rather, each mini symphony unfolds organically, introducing and exploring variations on – often simple – melodic motifs to create an interesting dynamic. It’s in some ways truer to the idea of a symphony than recognised standards such as Genesis’ Supper’s Ready or Dream Theater‘s A Change of Seasons, in the sense that there’s a single song underpinning each extended workout, rather than an Abbey Road-style ‘medley’ feel. Opening – and title – track, Speak exemplifies this perfectly: its tasteful, yet compellingly-dynamic instrumental break is anchored at either end by a touching piano ballad; Hart‘s plaintive tones matched by some decidedly Banksian chords (evoking for me the opening of One For the Vine, without really sounding too much like it).
Hide and Seek‘s chamber-styled orchestrations give way to a section which recall’s Genesis‘ Entangled; …And I Awaken (click on Soundcloud player, below) is guaranteed to delight and confound Prog-heads as Airplane surely pleases and tests movie buffs, with its frequent, fleeting allusions to Prog’s old masters: blink and you might miss those – artfully re-imagined – melodic tips of the hat to, amongst others Warm Wet Circles, Silent Sorrow in Empty Boats and The Great Gig in the Sky, not to mention Awaken itself.
The final track is a cover of Go Or Go Ahead by Rufus Wainwright – Hart incidentally, having been a member of his touring band – and features a duet with – fellow Wainwright aficianado and Marillion singer – Steve Hogarth. It’s a departure from the symphonic prog sound that characterizes the rest of the album. So characteristic is Hogarth‘s vocal it teeters on the edge of becoming ‘Marillionized‘: he has an uncany ability to make other artists’ material his own (check out his [solo] performance of Jeff Buckley’s Dream Brother or [with Marillion] Radiohead‘s Fake Plastic Trees). That said, it’s a fitting coda to the album, a moment of quiet – albeit pained – introspection that brings both band and listeners back home after a many-splendoured musical and emotional journey.
The accident that (eventually) led me to discover this wonderful album actually happened back in the spring of 2007, when I caught a short solo spot by Hart at Marillion‘s biennial Weekend convention in Port Zelande, Netherlands. He was an impressive presence even alone with his piano; delighting the afternoon crowd with, in particular, a rendition of (Marillion‘s) ’80s hit Lavender. Dramatic flourishes aside, this is a songwriter’s album, which ought to appeal to today’s neo-prog heads; fans of, for example Spock’s Beard, Von Hertzen Brothers or Flying Colours. Whilst never approaching the more rocking moments of these bands, it shares their ability to leaven sophisticated playing and arrangement with a strong sense of melody.
Whether I and Thou turns out to be long-term prospect of simply a one-off for Hart remains to be seen; though I for one, won’t be waiting another five years to investigate his music further.