Tim Bowness: Catching Up with the Velvet Ghost
*It would be difficult to discuss Tim’s output without mentioning No-Man and some of his collaborative efforts. I mentioned being on the road since 1999 and it’s that year I met Tim at the now defunct 12 Bar Club in London’s Denmark Street where I also briefly chat to Steve Jansen and Peter Chilvers. I’ve not met Tim in person since but we have maintained a periodic dialogue over the years. The story begins some years earlier…
PAINTING PARADISE: THE NEW ROMANTIC NINETIES
It’s the early 90s and everything you knew has gone. Releases by Claudia Brucken and the reformed Japan (Rain Tree Crow), seen as relics from the dark ages, are killed off by zeitgeist critics in search of new blood. But it’s bands that fly in the face of fashion that most interest me and those are few and far between. But wait, what’s this? ‘No-Man are a bizarre love triangle between Aphex Twin, Japan and Pink Floyd,’ well that might be worth looking into.
A sunny morning at Newport Market reveals the CD single for Painting Paradise. Three ex-members of Japan, two tracks, £1. Sold! The other track is Heaven Taste, a 21 minute odyssey with Steve Jansen, Richard Barberi, and Mick Karn. Its length is a little questionable but its wondrous meandering including the ‘Kingdom in the Clouds’ middle section does enough for me to investigate the album; a limited edition 2 disc set at around £13 culled from the racks of Virgin Cardiff (now a TESCO).
The cinematic undertones housed within are more than agreeable to someone coming from a sophistipop slant of the latter 80s; Love and Money, The Blue Nile, Pet Shop Boys (Love Sighs), Wendy and Lisa (I am thinking of the English cine-funk of Tulip).
There’s also a nod to prog in the 10 minute single version of Sweetheart Raw (not on the album but well worth searching out – especially for Barbieri’s brilliance during the coda), and Heaven’s Break, a kind of clean or airbrushed Pink Floyd if you like. A longer version of Paradise; more folky than the ‘INXS-ive’ radio version, including Ben Coleman’s violin and a spoken word entry by Tim; ‘painting, painting paradise.’
Outside of the main album is an eight track mini-album ‘Lovesighs’ There’s the romantic ‘woman with a parasol’ imagery that in my mind accompanies Days in the Trees; itself a song of many variants. The minimalist Reich version samples Laura Flynn Boyle’s narrative from Twin Peaks. ‘He kisses my hand and then me. I can still feel that kiss… He’s talking but I can’t hear him. It was the first time I ever fell in love.’ Just for that track alone Steven Wilson deserves a bloody knighthood!
THE FLOWER IN YOUR MOUTH
1994’s Flowermouth passes me by initially, I’m put off by the reviews which are saying something like ‘it’s a lot heavier,’ in reality it’s nothing of the sort. If anything, it’s more cinematic. It must be 1996 by the time I purchase it in of all places Newport’s Hit Man Music (also long gone). Immediately, I’m smitten, an audiophile’s love affair ensues. (At the time of writing my review is still on All Music as is my band biography and reviews of Loveblows and Together We’re Stranger).
Following this I also purchase Flowermix and Wild Opera on one of my many visits to Bristol as well as Flame – Tim’s collaboration with Richard Barbieri which is another striking piece of work demonstrating they were no flukes. Quintessentially English, it’s somewhat of a middle ground between Jansen/Barbieri’s Stories Across Borders (1991) and Flowermouth.
The last track, Feel, to my ears, recalls parts of Propaganda’s A Secret Wish embellished by a pretty synth coda by Barbieri. I wasn’t so enamoured with Wild Opera which was sold to me purely on the strength of its own finale My Revenge on Seattle. ‘Maybe there’s more to life than just writing songs, maybe not.’
By now you could call me a very ardent fan. Most of these releases delve into many sonic pastures; pop, prog, rock yet there wasn’t a sound specific to No-Man. They found it on their first offering of the new millennium.
Coming a good three years after the Carolina Skeletons EP, Returning Jesus lies in a progressive jazz post-rock universe; ironically the only uptempo track is Slow it all Down (comedy in the court of the no-men). This style bled into 2003’s Together We’re Stranger and 2008’s Schoolyard Ghosts.
GIVING UP THE GHOST, ABANDONING THE DREAM
However the lights of liberty beckon for both Wilson and Bowness as Porcupine Tree begin to grow and Tim opts for further collaborative excursions both with Samuel Smiles World of Bright Futures (1999) and future Eno collaborator Peter Chilvers California, Norfolk (2002) before finally releasing his debut My Hotel Year in 2004.
He says it sounds like a compilation with his name on it and namechecks the two songs I play the least. I quite like the record especially the second cut, the designer groovy I Once Loved You, Made See-Through with a Jon Hassell like trumpet-motif and Blackrock 2000. More lyrically thoughtful then unsettling, this album could be seen as his Blemish or Here My Dear following a very sad and very real break up for real.
Ditching all my possessions to travel and then teach English and Cultural Communications in China I’ve been unable to purchase physical product. From the now I can see Tim has had a pretty prolific decade and I have a lot to catch up on. I could however read his extensive and fascinating album blogs.
On occasional visits to Hong Kong, the internet and You Tube were accessed to hear limited dispatches from the Bowness catalogue such as The Warm Up Man Forever featuring the tribal pounding of drummer Pat Mastelotto.
It’s a good intro to Abandoned Dancehall Dreams, his first solo outing in a decade, but is very much the odd song out in terms of overall album architecture. Aside the tribal percussive elements are fuzz bass and a lovely harmony vocal on the chorus.
Songs of Distant Summers could easily be a No-Man song and was probably intended as one. Musically it’s pretty much what it says, a forlorn reminder of a summer long since passed in a vein similar to Ophelie from Hector Zazou’s Sahara Blue recording of 1992. ‘The songs of distant summers grabbed you from the start, old friends who grew apart.’
FOXBASE ALPHA: PRESS RESET
The first two albums Abandoned Dancehall Dreams and Stupid Things That Mean The World take their visual cue from Genesis Nursery Cryme and Foxtrot (both the no-men cite this period as the highlight of the vinyl album cover – see also Yes Tales of Topographic Oceans, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon etc).
The artist at the helm of designing Tim’s albums over the course of this decade is Jarrod Gosling who deserves fair credit more so for his work on Ghostlight but we’ll get to that. Getting back to the music and for me, ‘Stupid Things…’ feels more cohesive, like he is getting more comfortable in his new solo skin or most likely a lavish velvet smoking jacket.
The Great Electric Teenage Dream sets ‘things’ in motion and again it’s backed up by strong drumming courtesy of Pat and Andrew Booker on top of which lie a fine set of great lyrics! ‘Once a record, now an unpaid stream.’ Tim’s singing of the title reminds me a little of Phil Oakey’s vocal particularly on the early Human League records and one wonders if The Black Hit of Space has filtered through the years for this worthy update. More on things Oakey League coming up.
Meanwhile, Sing to Me is notable as it’s the only co-write with Steven Wilson. Tim harmonising with himself is once again a nice touch. Press Reset is the next one to strike a chord as I’ve often had those nights walking the city almost invisible.
Touching on the subject of the disappeared, the song is delivered in two clear parts, the build up and the snapping point mid way through. ‘You’d laugh about it on another day, but this is not just another day, this is the day you’ll disappear’ – BANG! Cue full on sonic assault. It’s a stand out here as much as The Warm Up Man Forever on ADD.
Like A-ha’s Mary Ellen Makes the Moment Count and Duran Duran’s Still Breathing both of which round off their respective albums (Minor Earth, Major Sky and Astronaut) At the End of the Holiday is so evocative it’s hard to believe it isn’t from a long lost vault of rediscovered late sixties or early seventies gems. Also a tinge of Nick Drake’s Day is Done and appropriately enough Perry Blake‘s 1971.
GHOSTS OF YESTERDAY
Speaking of Perry, I mentioned in my recent blog of his liking for a specific era and while (some of) his music alludes (mostly) to artists from America Tim’s is definitely rooted in a northern English mindset. Think of the more morose or melancholic sound designs of say The Moody Blues, Procol Harum or Jethro Tull. This very English vista runs seamlessly into Lost in the Ghost Light and its opener Worlds of Yesterday.
And it doesn’t stop there, oh no, it gets even better!! Second cut Moonshot Manchild is superb! At nine minutes I wondered if it would hold my attention and it didn’t disappoint! Even on ropey headphones and the ambience of passing traffic it was a stunner like a lost gem from Selling England by the Pound era Genesis (think Cinema Show 2).
Kill the Pain That’s Killing You is more akin to Dry Cleaning Ray – and the micro-movement I mention following the Passengers album on my Eno blog, not really doing a lot for me but at least it’s different!
You’ll Be the Silence gets back to near brilliance, another nine minute force majeure. The electric piano here and on other recent work reminds of Hall and Oates, which is ok by me, love the bass picking around the 3.30 mark too. How about You Wanted to be Seen? I think I can honestly say the only thing missing is Steve Hackett or Tony Banks, not that their absence hinders the music, far from it.
It’s a pretty amazing band of brothers Tim has assembled. To echo Tim’s blog on this album, I could definitely see this being on THRESHOLD or CHARISMA in a parallel universe. So far this is my fave of the solo records but there are upcoming Flowers to bloom!
THE HOUSE OF PLENTY
Between himself and No-Man, Tim has somehow found time to resurrect the past with Plenty – a debut 30 years in the making! There are synths but there are also guitars so it’s a musical vernacular pitched somewhere between 1974 and 1987. As Tears Go By and Broken Nights have the synth style of the Human League’s Hysteria (say Louise) but with Tim’s soothing vocal instead of Phil Oakey’s heavier tones.
Indeed it would be interesting to hear Oakey sing these songs! Well, some of them. Strange Gods meanwhile immediately hits home, especially on the soaring Blue Nile-y chorus. Never Needing and new song The Good Man remind me of Deacon Blue’s Raintown so they’ve definitely stayed true to their word on remaining faithful to the era. The dreamy Englishness of China Crisis and Talk Talk are also present in the title track.
THE FLOWER IN YOUR MOUTH 2
Following the excursion into Bowness minus Windermere past, Flowers at the Scene continues the astonishing run of releases and a fascination for petals (Flowermouth, Say it with Flowers). Yes, he may look like Steve Davis after he’s just lost a vital frame but rest assured he’s a romantic at heart. Nonetheless some familiar musical and lyrical themes remain.
On Borderline; a co-write with Roger Eno, the sedate jazz blends Flame’s Brightest Blue with Carolina Skeletons. The trumpet of Ian Dixon resembling that of Ian Carr (who played on Flowermouth not the songs I mention above) and Colin Edwin on double bass holds a mirror to Danny Thompson’s (who does play on Brightest Blue) so you get the musical footprint on offer here.
Subject wise, it’s almost a precursor to Press Reset (before the central character ‘snaps’) ‘friends keeping tabs, you just say that you’re fine, they’re watching you slip, across the fragile borderline.’ Best of all though is it’s produced by No-Man which alludes to a future together, which may or may not be stranger.
LAMENT: SONGS FOR THE WEE SMALL HOURS
Since writing this piece last year, Tim has been prolific as ever, releasing the long lost epic Love You to Bits with Steven Wilson, becoming No-Man’s first official record in over a decade. He has also signed a publishing deal with Peter Gabriel’s REALWORLD and begun a podcast The Album Years – again with Wilson. Astonishingly he’s also managed to produce yet another solo disc Late Night Laments, here’s my thoughts…
LNL positions itself in a kind of trilogy with The Blue Nile’s HATS and It’s Immaterial’s SONG, engineer Calum Malcolm being the common denominator. As such, the albums’ production and engineering are impeccable.
Like HATS the album is big on warmer textures (Northern Rain, The Hitman Who Missed, and Never a Place which recalls David Sylvian’s Darkest Dreaming in its melody line. Darkline is desolate but the cute tinkering electronics stop it from being depressing while One Last Call is also quite Sylvanian) so the cosy lounge of the cover art really makes sense.
However, outside those olive patterned curtains is a reassuringly rainy English night (We Caught the Light, The Last Getaway, Hidden Life) and for that reason Late Night isn’t such a cohesive collection as it alternates between moods a little like Side One of the Cocteau’s Heaven or Las Vegas (if indeed that bothers anyone). I’d say it was more of an Autumn/Spring record than a late August one though fans of Plenty’s It Could Be Home should be in seventh heaven as LNL could easily be the sequel.
THE OTHER SIDE
Of the five bonus tracks, The Other Side is like Flame’s Feel in slow motion. Beauty in Decay reminds of What Lies Here (the last song from Flowers at the Scene) and along with Cheerleader for the Damned might have been better on the actual album than relegated to the subs bench.
Beyond the Firing Line feels like the mysterious Hunros by Welsh chanteuse Gwenno with the jazzy trumpet not a million miles away from No-Man’s own Where I’m Calling From. Together with Last Getaway, Hidden Life and War Games by the Sea they might have formed the beginnings of another album; perhaps the morning after the LNL.
What is missing is a ‘Let’s Go Out Tonight’ or anything as uptempo as Headlights on the Parade or as moody as From a Late Night Train which I could really see Tim doing. But not to subtract from his many plusses, there’s an electronic twist in evidence, similar but less Kraftwerk-y than Lloyd Cole’s Guesswork from last year; both men now in their middle years with musical journey’s far from hitting the buffers. As always I am looking forward to whatever Tim Bowness conjures up next.
PLAYLIST AND CREDITS
My thanks to Martin and Ronnie at Karisma in Norway and to Tim in the UK. Meanwhile, please check out The Atlas for more cultural shenanigans and Kulture Kiosk on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Playlist and Photo Credits to follow…
**I’ve had to be ruthlessly selective with the Beautiful Songs You Should Know, otherwise the list would run into hundreds!
Painting Paradise (any version, single, album or Paradub) – No-Man
Tulip (from Loveblows and Lovecries) – No-Man
Sweetheart Raw (single version) – No-Man
Days in the Trees (Mahler and/or Reich versions) – No-Man
Shell of a Fighter (from Flowermouth) – No-Man
Faith in You (from Flowermix) – No-Man
My Revenge on Seattle (from Wild Opera) – No-Man
Close Your Eyes (EP version or Returning Jesus album version) – No-Man
Small (from World of Bright Futures) – Tim Bowness/Samuel Smiles
California, Norfolk (from California, Norfolk) – Tim Bowness/Peter Chilvers
I Once Loved You (from My Hotel Year) – Tim Bowness
Made See-Through (from My Hotel Year) – Tim Bowness
Blackrock 2000 (from My Hotel Year) – Tim Bowness
The Warm Up Man Forever (from Abandoned Dancehall Dreams) – Tim Bowness
Songs of Distant Summers (from Abandoned Dancehall Dreams) – Tim Bowness
The Great Electric Teenage Dream (from Stupid Things That Mean the World) – Tim Bowness
Press Reset (from Stupid Things That Mean the World) – Tim Bowness
Mary Ellen Makes the Moment Count (from Minor Earth, Major Sky) – A-ha
1971 (from Perry Blake) – Perry Blake
Day is Done (from Five Leaves Left) – Nick Drake
At the End of the Holiday (from Stupid Things That Mean the World) – Tim Bowness
Worlds of Yesterday (from Lost in the Ghost Light) – Tim Bowness
Moonshot Manchild (from Lost in the Ghost Light) – Tim Bowness
Strange Gods (from It Could Be Home) – Plenty
Borderline (from Flowers at the Scene) – Tim Bowness
Brightest Blue (from Flame) – Richard Barberi/Tim Bowness
Love You To Bits (single version) – No-Man
The Wires are Down (from HATS expanded) – The Blue Nile
River (from SONG expanded) – It’s Immaterial
Never a Place (from Late Night Laments) – Tim Bowness
Darkest Dreaming (from Dead Bees on a Cake) – David Sylvian
Beyond the Firing Line (Late Night Laments bonus track) – Tim Bowness
Hunros (from Le Kov) – Gwenno
Where I’m Calling From – No-Man
Photo Credits: Mostly from discogs except Claude Monet’s ‘Woman with a Parasol’ from Wiki. Plenty 1987 band shot by Mark Taylor. Plenty cover image courtesy of Karisma Records. Photo of Tim by Charlotte Kinson.