Monday, June 13, 2016

The Left Banke - Walk Away Renee / Pretty Ballerina

Immersed as I am in this Twee book, I'll use the opportunity to re-post this review from last June of one of the ultimate Twee albums, The Left Banke's first album, a major source of Stuart Murdoch and Belle & Sebastian's founding inspiration.

'This is a vinyl purchaser's story. I'm down south for a family get together this week as my mother has had a celebration for her eightieth birthday. The party for this took place yesterday in Canterbury. A good time was had by all though I don't imagine that you're taking notes. All in all a fairly special experience in the best sense of the word the kind that triggers memory and emotional duct blood-flow in all kinds of ways you never quite expect. Today, a good part of the clan gathered again for lunch and a walk around Whitstable, fifteen minutes drive down the road on the coast where my brother's family who live in Miami have a holiday house.

After lunch, we wandered down the beach. A beautiful, sunlit day. Of course, being the person that I am, which this blog attests to, half my mind was wondering if we were likely to chance upon a record shop as we ambled across pebbles and took ice creams. On the way back we made our way past Whitstable's  impressive selection of second hand and gift shops. The place has gentrified in a good way over the past fifteen years as it's been soaked into the overflow of London and the south east's ever accumulating wealth and reach.

A stone's throw away from home I saw what I'd been looking for. A collector's shop with the right kind of  records on display in the window. Those who might read this, who care about this kind of thing, will know what I mean. Having eventually found the entrance to the place, in a side door, my oldest American nephew Ben, (who is fast-developing his own interest in such things), and I had a look through the well organised racks of records there.

There was plenty of good stuff. Reasonably priced. But nothing that really grabbed me. And then halfway down the second rack I came upon this album. I kind of stopped in my tracks because I'm well enough versed in stuff like this to know when I chance upon something pretty unusual. What appeared to be an original version of the first Left Banke record. The one named after their two best known songs, Pretty Ballerina and Walk Away Renee, both tracks placed not insignificantly on track one of Side 1 and Side 2 respectively as well as sharing the title of the record itself. The one that taught Stuart Murdoch of Belle & Sebastian a great deal of what he needed to know when first he decided to embark upon a career in music.

I took it to the record shop owner who was perched behind the counter, to make the basic inquiries. The album had a couple of small stickers on it. 'Original Issue! Plays Fine!'. and '£29.99'. My initial feeling was that if the first statement was correct then the price was by no means unreasonable. The brief conversation we had was enough for me. Like all proper record shop people he was first and foremost a music fan.

He shared my surprise at the fact that he even had the album. This kind of psychedelic wave cultish stuff barely made it to British shores in the late sixties, never mind landing up on a shelf for sale in decent condition almost fifty years later. He mentioned Love, the Strawberry Alarm Clock and the Chocolate Watchband as particular favourites of his. All of this stuff strangely seals a deal. It was clear that a trip to the nearest cash-point was required and proper.

It's difficult to describe the strange sense of anxiety I felt when going to get the money needed, returning to exchange it for the record and how I've been in the couple of hours since before getting round to writing this. This might be something quite peculiar to record buyers although perhaps it's a fluttery sensation that might also be understood by those who amass antiques or classic cars, or mechanical engines, or first edition books .There's a slight twinge of guilt involved but also a realisation that you actually had little choice in the matter. That the object and you were supposed to be together.

Anyway, it's mine, and I should imagine and hope always will be. The album itself is not quite a masterpiece, no matter what anyone tells you, perhaps a minor one and certainly a grower. What makes it most noticeable, is the songwriting of main man Michael Brown, who died just recently, and the unquestionably baroque and crafted arrangement of the songs. Also of course its influence. Most notably Belle & Sebastian, Badly Drawn Boy and a whole generation of sensitive strummers with fringes, from the eighties onwards. It sounds strangely like one of the first indie records now. Time changes albums into something they never were when first released.

Peculiarly also, both the album's best known tracks were almost love letters from Brown to the remarkably named Renee Fladen-Kamm, who at that point was the girlfriend of bassist Tom Finn. She's described on the pages of Wikipedia as a free spirited blond.There's something of this unrequited loneliness, heartbreak and longing in the sound of the record and also a lack of true closeness in the playing of the musicians themselves, (they disbanded shortly after these recordings were made and were replaced by backing musicians) that actually seems to haunt the record itself. It's a 'nearly' record. But at the same time one of the great ones.

Elsewhere, it's the ghost of The Beatles influence that casts as great a shadow as Bach on things that provides the album's most obvious flaws. Things get better the further away it moves from them but occasionally the unmistakable combination of the arrangement of harmonies and the hoarse full-throated howl of Martin Caro on certain tracks gives you the uncanny sensation that Lennon has barged his way through to the mic and McCartney and Harrison have gathered behind him in support.Check out last track Lazy Day, if you don't believe me. 

Still, I'm by know means complaining. Have I said before that it's mine? My precious! It'll undoubtedly be a record I return to and bond with over time and Walk Away Renee, in particular is an exquisite, pocket masterpiece of compressed emotion. Much else here falls not far short of that. The delicacy and sensitivity of the songs, the compact, simplicity of the arrangements and the knowledge that I'm in possession of an original object  of such simple beauty all mean that today was a good day. And not of course just because I bought the record but equally because of the memories, company, scenery and emotions that accompanied my purchase of it. Listening to it over future months and years will no doubt send me spiraling back through time and space to that point. To the weekend of my mother's eightieth birthday party. And no, I don't think I'm being fanciful. This is the way these things actually work!'

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