Caught by the River

Julie Tippetts & Martin Archer – Serpentine

14th November 2012

Julie Tippetts & Martin Archer – Serpentine
Review by Kevin Pearce

Possibly people perusing this site may feel a little awed by the scale of some of the feats featured, even daunted by the dogged determination of contributors caught up in scatter-brained schemes. But then, sod it, for some people walking to the shops and back is a challenge, starting an evening class an achievement, and so on. All of us are adventurers in some way.

Julie Tippetts and Martin Archer, for example, are peerless, fearless musical adventurers. Their new CD Serpentine is a complete carnival of delights, one that opens with a song called River, appropriately enough for this community. It’s the third in a series of collaborations between Julie and Martin in the past few years or so, and follows briskly on from last year’s extravagant, conceptual, labyrinth-like 2CD set Tales of FiNiN which has been described as “the most rewarding record of recent times”. Serpentine is, by comparison with the intricate filigree of FiNiN, positively precise, pop even, if you approach such things from awkward angles with a bit of a sideways squint and a raised eyebrow or two, and only define pop in terms of imaginations running riot.

There are three discrete elements to the wonderful works Julie and Martin come up with. One, naturally, is Julie’s voice. She is quite simply the best singer we have. On Serpentine she can ooze thoughtfully; musing, meandering her way through a song in that way which makes people return to Sunset Glow again and again and again. Julie can sing the blues, straight, simmering, smouldering siren-like, and she can burrow and probe her way through a track, intimately exploring every single space that might be overlooked by those without the technique and temerity. And oddly on this, and the other records she’s made with Martin, when Julie simply speaks, recites, the effect is even more alarming and affecting.

The second element to celebrate is Martin’s musical structures. His background is in jazz and electronics, and these disciplines are drawn upon imaginatively on Serpentine, providing the perfect settings for Julie’s singing. This is not easy listening, but it is by no means an alienating, abstract work. There are incongruously, wonderfully, moments when the music veers towards clattering daytime radio pop surge, albeit distorted through smashed fragments of possibility. Highlights on this new record come when Martin uses elements from Sugar Minott’s Ghetto-ology Dub to create musical soundscapes that feel dangerous, and as disorientating as being caught in an unexpected, unexpectedly violent storm. Admirers of Adrian Sherwood’s classic On-U Sound productions will adore these tracks.

The third part of the equation is Julie’s words. And she clearly loves words, and has a way with words, understands the power and beauty of words. Their first collaboration, Ghosts of Gold, was a selection of Julie’s poetry placed in striking musical contexts. The second, Tales of FiNiN, was an elaborate saga that revealed itself fantastically, obliquely. Serpentine, by contrast, is almost like a series of short stories. Natural elements feature strongly: rivers, caves, crocodiles, lizards, scorpions, snakes. And it seems as if the songs are occasionally onomatopoeic: Crocodile conjures up that creature’s “frozen cunning”, Squamata Dance evokes gyrating geckos, and Snake-Bite captures the coiled intent, and so on.

There is nothing new about Julie being a great writer: back in the late ‘60s she came up with Vauxhall to Lambeth Bridge, which is one of the great London songs, so beautiful, as the singer anonymously wanders along the stretch of the river she knows so well. Julie refuses to dwell on the past, but it has to be acknowledged that in the past 45-odd years no-one else has moved on from that pop milieu to such surprising and challenging places. Scott Walker and Robert Wyatt, perhaps, could be cited, but with Julie’s body of work there seems to be more of a sense of stubbornness, which is enormously endearing.

Serpentine is a strange, dramatic and beautiful record, and it’s a real treat for anyone searching for new music that possesses a spirit of adventure and which fits in with absolutely nothing else around. It’s also beautifully presented in a way that makes buying a CD a great experience. Details matter a lot, which is something the music industry foolishly forgets when wondering why no-one wants to buy its products. I got my copy of Serpentine direct from Martin Archer’s Discus label for £10 inc. p&p. You can do the same and hear extracts here.

Kevin Pearce writes about music on his Your Heart Out blog. Subscribe.