Even when dealing with highly original, individual talents, sometimes musicians collaborate and produce something so complete that – not only do you wonder how they never found each other before – it also sounds like they’ve already been working together for years.
This is the case with the self-titled debut album by Wyndow, whose core members are Laura J Martin, a singer and multi-instrumentalist with feet in indie, dance, pop and folk camps – more camps than actual feet, it turns out – and Lavinia Blackwall, perhaps most widely known for her vocals in the sadly-missed Trembling Bells, a folk-rock powerhouse of a group and one of my favourite bands of all time. Since they dissolved, Blackwall has made a superb solo album, ‘Muggington Lane End’ (with her live backing band, Stilton). But in all honesty, Martin and Blackwall’s work together draws in some of their signature elements, while moving both into entirely new territory. ‘Wyndow’ is a really handsome achievement, at once comforting and confounding, and unlocking limitless future possibilities for the duo.
The notes supplied for the album explain its origins. Bonding over the work of Robert Wyatt and deciding to record a cover of his song ‘Free Will and Testament’ (included here), Martin and Blackwall kept going, working remotely due to lockdown conditions.
Taking cues from classical minimalism (I was thrilled to see they’d cited Penguin Café Orchestra as another influence), acoustic instruments are to the fore – in particular, Martin’s flute and clarinet supply hints of earth and air. However, they focused on exchanging loops and hooks, developing lyrics and melodies over repetitive patterns or improvisations, applying treated rhythms and synth atmospheres to the mix.
The overall result is a kind of electrically-charged chamber folk: it might be borne from shared favourites and current circumstances, but it transcends its influences and sounds utterly timeless, future-proof.
Both lyrically and musically, the band set out to walk a tightrope between the familiar and the strange; ease and unease; the tangible and ethereal. Everything about their aesthetic contributes to this, even their name (a ‘wynd’ is a narrow alley, so passing through a ‘wyndow’ may take you further than you bargained for). It is especially true of their voices. Blackwall has a chorister-clarity that might belong up with the angels but can also dive headlong into sensual earthiness (these changes of timbre turning many Trembling Bells tracks into tales of the unexpected); while Martin has a breathy, close-to-the-mic purity. As a result, they conjure up the kind of harmonies that I’m particularly drawn to, where the voices don’t exactly ‘blend’, so much as ‘fit’.
Sometimes you get a seamless, meant-to-be match with vocal harmonies – perhaps the singers are siblings (Everly Brothers, Bee Gees, First Aid Kit), or it’s simply the happiest of accidents (Beatles, ABBA, Smoke Fairies, whatever magic it is that Emmylou Harris conjures in almost anyone’s company). But there are other examples where the combination of voices still causes shivers down the spine, even though – or perhaps because – you can follow what each voice is doing quite distinctly, and hear clearly how well they complement each other. (Think of the wary dance Simon & Garfunkel’s voices enact, encapsulating their brittle bond so well.)
For me, this is part of Wyndow’s distinct genius: the voices harmonise beautifully, perfectly even, but never sacrifice their differences – so the alluring noise they make is simultaneously natural, yet otherworldly.
When the mood of the album is sustained so well throughout, it’s hard to home in on highlights. Some of the record’s most immediate tracks have already emerged as digital singles and in one of the parallel universes suggested by this band, ‘All Cameras Gone’, the most recent of these, is a chart-conquering, monster hit. The percussion is gentle, but the pace robust; the background riff a hyperactive, circular figure which the melody both glances off and glides over.
Another preview track, ‘Pulling on a String’, lopes along at a stroll, its rock-a-bye pace allowing the brilliant arrangement room to breathe. As if revealing various sections of an orchestra trapped behind doors on a stage set, sensual strings and woozy woodwind loom over then retreat, ebb and flow over the stately piano and vocal.
Of the new songs, ‘Flattened by the Wind’ is one of the most arresting, starting with Blackwall singing a cryptic verse over solo piano before suddenly adding exotica in the form of chanson-like drama and a bluesy swing. Its close-packed, intense layers hint at a build to delirium, but always kept in check, even – if necessary – by stopping the song to pause for breath.
I’m also addicted to perhaps the most psychedelic track, ‘Third Tea of the Day’, which begins as what seems like a standard prog-folk reel, but the Wyndow effect means we never blast off into a rocking outro: instead, the energy is contained by a harpsichord solo, insistent tapping on a hi-hat and sheets of overlaid noise and vocal. It’s a kinetic marvel, perpetual motion (that PCO influence again!) as a fully-formed song.
The four tracks I’ve called out are very much first among equals on an album which never disappoints, only delights. Easily one of my discs of the year. Take a look.
‘Wyndow’ is available on vinyl, CD and digital directly from the artists’ Bandcamp page, here.