Bella Union: Eclecticism par excellence


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In the third part of Getintothis’ love affair with record labels, we delve into the box of assorted delights on offer in 2008 at Bella Union.

Previous witterings on Labels of Love have uncovered imprints which while not exclusively tied to a particular sound, contain artists within a similar furrow.
Not so Bella Union, the label founded by Simon Raymonde and Robin Guthrie, shortly before the break-up of their band, seminal 80s act The Cocteau Twins.
No, rather like their previous incantation, Bella Union, who last year celebrated a decade at the forefront of British-based independent music, are anything but pigeonholable.
And it’s perhaps this very reason why year-on-year they are building such an expansive and impressive list of luminaries.
Now run solely by Raymonde, artists signed to Bella Union, include Explosions in the Sky, Josh Pearson (of Lift To Experience), The Dears and post-rock legends The Dirty Three.
The label really started shaking the top of the critical and commercial tree during the last two years when Fionn Regan bagged a Mercury Prize nomination, Beach House became the toast of transatlantic bloggers and alt-rock beardos Midlake bagged the breakthrough band of 06 by crashing into every end of year top 10 with their incendiary The Trials of Van Occupanther.
But few at the label could have anticipated the shitstorm of excitement in 2008. You could barely move for coverage of BU’s alt-country darlings Fleet Foxes when the Seattle bunch dropped their debut, while hacks at Uncut/Mojo wet themselves about the LP they’d waited half their life for.
Truth be told though, Fleet Foxes are way down Bella Union’s best offerings of 08. That slot goes emphatically to Portland’s Peter Broderick‘s profoundly moving Home.
In a similar way to Bon Iver‘s thrilling For Emma, Forever Ago, Broderick’s fascination with detail captures an intimacy heard only in the finest of music.
Every breath frosting out in his new wintery home of Copenhagen – where he emigrated to share a stage with touring band Efterklang – billows, circling round the dust. Every finger-pick clicks and flicks, nestling softly into his multi-layered harmonies.
Again, like Bon Iver, Broderick’s a lonely soul, and Home is a loose concept record, as his hushed timbre talks of searching of a resting place, comfort and solace. Whether he finds it is another matter.
And much of Home shares an unsettling calm, reminiscent of the discomforting stillness of Pink Moon (see the six minute twinkle-gloom of Sickness, Bury) – or on the haunting climax of Below It, a ghostly emotive refrain aligned with that other tortured soul Mark Kozelek.
But to suggest the record is a craft for despair and longing would paint an entirely incorrect picture; quite the opposite, Home feels whole, reassuring, and positively radiates with a positive glow.
Games Again is little more than an organ drone and howl, while Not At Home drives a repeated simple acoustic motif, carried along with Broderick’s expansive voices, layered and trailing off into a radiating horizon. It’s great to sing along too. Or simply sit still and take in late at night.
And It’s Alright could quite easily have slipped off Kozalek’s Red House Painter‘s greatest hits; a gothic slow-burner with a bruised melody, brushed drums and simple drop-outs which act as catchy hooks. It’s magnificent.
Perhaps the greatest asset of Home is the unity of the album; take one track in isolation and it’s good, but the overall power is reduced – piece them as a whole and you’ve something truly special, and for those who still believe in the long-player as the essential way to listen – that’s something to get excited about.

Peter Broderick: Below It
Sharing an attention to detail, but traversing an altogether landscape – one which is vast and expansive – is Glory Hope Mountain by Ontario’s The Acorn.
Another conceptual piece, Glory… is a biographical tribute to principal songwriter Rolf Klausener‘s Honduras-born mother, Gloria Esperanza Montoya and gathers stories of struggle, discovery, triumphs and life-affirming adventure – and with it music which is rich in invention and ambition.
It’s no surprise that Elbow‘s Guy Garvey recently stated that Glory was one of the band’s favourites of 2008 – for the two bands clearly share a passion for both the intricacies of production and when to keep things simple.
Where Oh Napoleon is a stripped back banjo pluck and Flood Pt 2 shares the fragile beauty akin to After the Goldrush they’re contrasted with the canyon-cascading guitars of Even While You’re Sleeping and the tribal patter urgency of Crooked Legs.
Best of all is opener Hold Your Breath; all chiming six-strings, leaden drums and a waterfall of emotion which continually builds for a full five minutes.
Heart-drums, gut-strings, pianos, ukuleles, marimbas and Klausener’s winning melody are chief ingredients in a record which would be the ideal soundtrack to the greatest outdoor flick cinema could imagine.

The Acorn: Crooked Legs
Exemplifying Bella Union‘s spirit for eclecticism – and indeed being on the money with where it’s at – is Abe Vigoda.
Taking their name from the actor that famously portrayed Salvatore Tessio in Mario Puzo’s Godfather, the LA quartet are one of a number of this year’s buzz bands, who along with the likes of HEALTH, The Mae Shi and Mika Miko have been central to the rise of no-age club The Smell – a bohemian den which acts as an experimental space for bands to perform and explore ideas.
The fruits of which are sewn onto Vigoda’s first UK release Skeleton, a record which has borne the band-endorsed ‘tropical punk’ tag and with it a feverish rush of hype, hype, HYPE.
It’s not hard to see why either, as the 14-tracks whisk by in little over 30 minutes along a wave of psychotic African percussion and frenetic instrumentation.
Think Animal Collective jamming with the Tropicalia futurists Tom Ze or Caetano Veloso – it’s that much of a hipster’s paradise.
But, don’t for one minute think Vigoda share the instant rewards of Vampire Weekend, or even Yeasayer, sure they draw from the same vibrancy and rhythmic clatter, but Skeleton is harder, more abrasive and rawer beast.
Endless Sleeper employs buzzsaw guitars amid calypso steel while The Garden is three minutes of relentless ringing-in-your-lugs whistling treble.
Where their contemporaries use the exoticism as a warm texture, here it’s stabbing and grating so much so Skeleton can be an exhausting listen. But who says music should be easy.
Abe Vigoda play Liverpool’s Korova Thursday December 4.

Those of the gentler persuasion should turn to Our Broken Garden.
New to Bella Union for 2008, OBG is the moniker for great Dane Anna Broensted – and like Peter Broderick, another of team Efterklang. This year has been a busy one for Broensted, releasing first her debut EP Lost Sailor to quiet acclaim before her first full-length When Your Blackening Shows hit in late September.
Similarly to label boss, Raymonde’s old band, Broensted shares an otherworldly quality with that of lead Cocteau Twin, Liz Frazer, all eerily evocative vocals which cut like glass while nestling atop a blanket of soulful piano, organ and trembling strings.
Recorded in an abandoned village school in Danish woodland, WYBS is a close cousin of label-mates Beach House, relying on ambience and understated subtleties to win you over.
Only the darker guitar-flecked The Rock Collector breaks out into (ahem) rockier territory while the likes of The Samaritan and Cardia trudge in almost somnambulant fashion. And it’s this flirtation with the barely-there atmospherics which can lead to criticism of a lack of variation.
Nevertheless the hammond-drenched My Kinship and starkly beautiful Watermark make for an album profoundly beautiful, if deeply affected with sorrow.

Our Broken Garden: When Your Blackening Shows

Peter Broderick: Home

Abe Vigoda: Skeleton

The Acorn: Glory Hope Mountain

Our Broken Garden: When Your Blackening Shows
Further listening:
An Interview with Bella Union boss Simon Raymonde.