From the Cliffs/Through the Windowpane

(Verve, Fantastic Plastic, Universal/Fantastic Plastic, Universal; 2006/2006)

By Peter Hepburn | 15 December 2007

The Guillemots have a bulletproof PR strategy: cosmopolitanism and funny names. Fyfe Dangerfield (piano, lead vocals, master fencer) is the Brit, MC Lord Magrao is the Brazilian guitarist, drumming is left to the able Scottish paws of Rican Cao, and the most interesting element, double bass, is the purview of the lovely Canadian, Aristazabal Hawkes. While this would undoubtedly make for a pretty awesome Saturday morning cartoon (think A-team meets the UN, in Technicolor, with guitars!), it really doesn’t mean anything for the music. In fact, if anything, this band sounds more British than it ought to. Drawing from damn near everyone involved in modern Britpop, from Travis to Coldplay to Badly Drawn Boy to the Beta Band, the sound is a regurgitation of tired ideas, occasionally cleverly altered.

Over the last three weeks I’ve found these two releases, the From the Cliffs EP and Through the Windowpane, alternately quaint and clichéd, charming and excruciating. I hum along, sure, but when I stop to listen to the songs, I often can’t help but feel cheated. Not all the time, mind you, but there’s something here that’s unavoidably superficial; the emulation of great (or just good) influences doesn’t bear very consistent or interesting fruit in this case.

To a certain degree, it works. The band’s two serious singles, “Trains to Brazil” (ooh, distant location) and “Made Up Love Song #43,” are both perfectly respectable releases. “Trains” is undoubtedly the stronger of the two, letting Dangerfield emote to his heart’s content while the band plays fast and loose with that melody. Dangerfield’s subtle piano work is also notable, giving the first verse a bounce it otherwise wouldn’t have, and helping to offset some of the extraneous sax work. “Made Up” is charming in it’s own way, and lets Dangerfield slip into his balladeer robe without slowing the band down to a crawl, as he does on the rest of both From the Cliffs and Through the Windowpane. Still, as with all the rest of the ballads (and lets face it, pretty much all Guillemots songs), the lyrics are a festering, bloated, purplish-blue sore spot. You’d think that for a band with such beautiful and intricate production, the Guillemots could at least hire someone to write them a decent love song. Instead, we get pledges of love “through sparks and shining dragons.” Yes, dragons.

Dangerfield’s fondness for 9th-grade poetry gives us other gems throughout both releases. “Who Left the Lights Off, Baby?” is perhaps the worst offender. The song—which we’ll call “a charming homage to Belle & Sebastian”—is actually pretty enjoyable, but then we get stuck with lines like, “I could love you, baby, till the cows came home / What’s that noise? / Yeah, it’s the cows knocking on our door.” Even discounting the real stinkers, Dangerfield’s penchant for broad, gallant statements lends him a certain pomposity and cuts the legs out of some lines that, if delivered better, could have almost pretended to mean something.

That, if anything, is the downfall of From the Cliffs. Released earlier this year, but containing material recorded over the last three, the EP shows the band in its infancy. “Trains to Brazil” and “Made Up” anchor the front end of the disc quite effectively, but it’s the nine-minute “Over the Stairs” that is meant to be the heart of the EP. The thing: nine-minute songs tend to require A) a great melody, B) multiple movements, or C) some really good lyrics, and “Over the Stairs” has none of these. Dangerfield does a decent job with his lines, but he tends to over-sell, trying to imbue his words with more weight than they deserve. Let the first verse go quiet, Fyfe, and then ram it home on the second, and you would have had me. Instead, by the end of the second verse we’re awash in organs and chimes. Ultimately the song goes nowhere and I skip to “Who Left,” because, despite the lyrics, it’s a clever tune. Both “Cats Eyes” and the vaguely ragga “Go Away” are epics, and both fare about as well as “Over the Stairs” (though I will allow that “Cats Eyes” has more going for it, especially with those female backing vocals and almost Fiery levels of musical ADD). The EP closes out with the inconsequential “My Chosen One,” a fluffy, dull ballad.

It’s not altogether surprising, then, that Through the Windowpane opens with another ballad. Setting the tone for much of the record, the stale string swells that announce the beginning of the song also provide an apt target for Dangerfield’s heavy-handed delivery. The two singles again frontload the album, but then we return to the world of slow-dances with inevitable third single “Redwings.” As Guillemots songs go, they really only do better with “Blue Would Still Be Blue,” “Redwings” would be much stronger at four minutes than six. The organ is a nice—albeit hackneyed—refuge from the strings, and the female backing vocals nearly recover all lost ground. And Dangerfield stuns, managing to keep his foot entirely out of his mouth, even providing a few compelling images.

The album’s midsection is another forgettable stretch. “Come Away with Me” finds the band stretching for some sort of anti-melody and falls very flat. Conversely, “We’re Here” is too bombastically clichéd to make any real impression. In between, the title track makes a grab at the legacy of The Beta Band, letting Hawkes really open up on a track and burying Dangerfield a bit lower in the mix—a fortuitous change, because otherwise those falsetto choruses would really hurt.

“Blue Would Still Be Blue” starts off the final third of the album right, with Dangerfield’s best ballad (of a middling army), finally paring down the backing nonsense enough to be likable. While it certainly drags on too long, it’s at least a step in the right direction, and sets up the jovial, if terribly written, pop gem of “Annie, Let’s Not Wait.” Again, it’s that propulsive double bass that makes the track work. However, this is all just setting up the last song, the behemoth “Sao Paulo.” The song is among the best on the disc, and at the very least shows the band building on the multi-section formula of “Over the Stairs.” Nonetheless, the rock hero section (following the lounge lizard and Boston Pops sections, respectively), with its emphatic declarations, grand gestures, and terrible lyrics, is enough to make even Bono blush.

The Guillemots have promise: we wouldn’t be devoting this much space to them if they didn’t. Still, they have a long way to come. Music like this assumes a certain self-imposed grandeur, and if these guys were the international superstars they want to be, these songs might mean something. Even then, though, they’d have to escape Dangerfield’s dreadful writing and the lowered expectations of slow-paced ballads. The sterling production and little embellishments woven into the staid formulas of Brit pop—the percussion in “Through the Windowpane,” imaginative-if-mediocre horn arrangements throughout both releases, Hawkes’s extra-thick bass lines—hint at a much a more interesting band struggling to break free. Instead of just latching on to the sonic palette of The Beta Band (a group they seem intent on emulating), they could embrace the Beta mindset: the creativity, playfulness, and refusal to ever bore the audience that made that band so frustratingly brilliant. But that’s the sort of frustrating one can enjoy and keep listening to; From the Cliffs and Through the Windowpane are the sort of frustrating that makes me just want to switch off the music.