Monday, October 19, 2015

Red Got Rhythm

Red by the Guillemots was - and still is - an utter oddball of a second album. It was released a mere 20 months after Through the Windowpane (a truly stunning record, and one of my all-time favourites), and yet Red was light-years away from the swooning sound of its predecessor, all glitter and sexuality and weird drum 'n' bass breaks.

And, erm, whatever Last Kiss is.

Nobody was quite sure what to make of Red when it first came out. Many reviews framed the album as an attempt to 'go pop': "the Guillemots have unexpectedly gone all R&B on our asses", wrote one NME staffer, clarifying, "and not in a good way." Other critics were kinder, but still seemed a little baffled: when delivering Pitchfork's middling verdict, reviewer Chris Dahlen called the album "a stylistic trainwreck", "a classic sophomore slump" and "a total mess" before admitting that it offered "reason enough to stay tuned, even when they stumble."

As a colossal Guillemots fan, I myself was somewhat taken aback when I first listened to Red from start to finish. I loved Kriss Kross - the album's epic, piratical opener - right away, and I eventually came to appreciate the after-dark loveliness of the last few tracks, too; everything in between kind of left me a little cold.

Last week, however, I found myself revisiting Red, and suddenly the album's hodge-podge mix of genres made some kind of sense. There's a very important difference between Red and Through the Windowpane of which I was only recently made aware: whereas Windowpane's twelve tracks were mostly written by frontman Fyfe Dangerfield, Red was more of a group effort, with only two songs (Clarion and Cockateels) credited to Fyfe and Fyfe alone.

This goes some way to explaining the latter album's more...diverse sound. But what I (and the critics whose reviews I read at the time) failed to spot back in 2008 is the fact that there is a thread - a red thread, if you will - binding it all together: rhythm. Yes, the goofy R&B of Big Dog and the elegant, soaring disco-samba of Cockateels seem to have been sung from two totally different hymn sheets, but the one thing they both have in common is a powerful focus on rhythmic elements. Red is a mess, just as Chris Dahlen said, but it's a fun mess, and I realise now that this mess was built on a strong foundation of drum machines and percussion instruments. And percussive sounds - even Falling Out of Reach, Red's least Reddish track, has that bit in the middle that sounds like Snow White's seven dwarfs banging their pickaxe handles on the ground and whistling in unison.

Remember when Sir Ian McKellen starred in a Guillemots video? The pickaxe part starts at 3:06.

My recommendation, if you weren't too keen on Red the first time around, is to revisit it now and approach it as a free-for-all celebration of rhythm and percussion in all their forms instead of as an ebbing, flowing song cycle. If that's what you're after, stick with Through the Windowpane; otherwise, I think you'll find Red far more enjoyable than it was given credit for upon release.

1 comment:

  1. I may understand how to get to know Red as an album of eleven songs and not as eleven songs that construct an album. I have to admit, though, that yes, the most epic song is Kriss Kross, as the rest is a very fun - and, sometimes dark - ride to hear.
    I have tried to fully understand Big Dog, Get Over It & Last Kiss... all unsuccessfully, while the other songs seem to circle around the response to death and life... I don't know?
    I too may have fallen quickly to think that this album seems a bit off, but I do enjoy the songs individually, as some lyrics are pretty interesting, like those in Clarion or Don't Look Down.
    I also would like to remark the name of the album, as this color, along with the blue, appear very often in all their lyrics; this has led me to think that blue refers to good and red to evil (?). I have noticed too a lot of metaphores like trains, to dance, and stars. Have you noticed it too?
    Anyway, I have to admit that the album I enjoy most is Walk the River, as all its songs have some sort of a "cold weather" from the beggining and until the end, although saddly I have not been able to fully understand all the lyrics in it.
    I see Walk the River as that refreshing winter after a hot summer that Red may have made us feel.
    I think Through the Window Pane is like a fresh travel on a bike, after which you have the need for more, and Hello Land! as a magical shift to all the surrounding things in Earth.

    Greetings and good post!