Caught by the River

Bill Ryder-Jones

11th January 2012

Bill Ryder-Jones – If… (Domino)
reviewed by Rob St. John.

Context is important to how we hear and appreciate music. Knowing the backstory or intention of a record often spurs you to give more it time, attention, and perhaps the benefit of the doubt. Equally, coming afresh to a record opens up the possibility of being surprised by how the music affects you: uninfluenced by any expectations. If… by former Coral guitarist Bill Ryder-Jones is a funny mix of the two: an immediately beautiful and dense record which has seemingly come out of nowhere, yet, to be fully understood, it demands an adventure through a beguiling post-modern novel.

If… soundtracks Italo Calvino’s On a winter’s night a traveller, a 1979 novel in which the narrator (unusually in the second-person) takes the reader through a collection of fragmented stories. Set partly in the fictional country of Cimmeria, there are echoes of Nabakov’s Pale Fire in the novel, where as a reader you tiptoe on a tightrope between disorientation and immersion.

On first listen, this record conjures similar emotions: it’s beautifully arranged and orchestrated yet slightly disorientating in its variety. However, before long – and bearing in mind the structure of the novel – it’s this variety and depth that is revealed as If…’s strength. Like the novel it soundtracks, the record is fragmented yet cohesive, at times unpredictable yet narratively intact. Soundtracks to a book are a rare thing, yet Ryder-Jones has interpreted Calvino’s novel with style. The record is warm and reassuringly human, drawing on a tonal palette of swelling strings, echoing minimalist piano and muted percussion recorded across a variety of Liverpudlian locations.

Thinking again about a record’s context, without knowing about the record’s literary inspiration, it makes immediate sense as the soundtrack to some “lost” vintage film score. If… could quite convincingly be passed off as a Finder’s Keepers or Trunk reissue of the soundtrack to a cult movie, echoing the magical fantatisticism of Lubos Fisher’s sound track to Czech 1970 freak-out Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, Yann Tiersen’s elegant film work and the collaborations between Falkirk pianist Bill Wells and Japanese oddballs Maher Shalal Hash Baz.

Album centrepiece ‘Enlace’ echoes Ennio Morricone or a restrained Godspeed, the ending breaking all inhibitions and swelling into an unashamed prog wig-out, calling to mind Pink Floyd in their post-Syd, pre-global-stardom period – Atom Heart Mother and More in particular. Perhaps appropriately given the fragmented nature of the novel it soundtracks, Ryder-Jones scales back this excess to a hush on songs like ‘Le Grand Desordre’, where a fractured vocal weaves a tale of remembrance over a bed of brittle nylon string guitar.

If… is a beautiful record, containing a wide sweep of intelligent arrangements, which whilst immediately enjoyable, yield a new depth and nuance given repeated listens and a delve through the record’s context and intention. I’ve yet to read Calvino’s novel alongside listening to the LP, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s more this record can yield with time.

If… is out now on Domino