I Am Kloot: Sky at Night (Shepherd Moon)
There is a curious symmetry to the latest offering from I Am Kloot. The band's debut Natural Historywas produced by Elbow's Guy Garvey. Since then, the group has released three further studio albums, plus two compilations, one of rarities, the other a collection of John Peel Sessions.
Consistently excellent live, Kloot has gone from strength to strength, constantly gigging, forging a status of considerable fan loyalty, popular in Europe and occasionally denting the lower reaches of the British charts, but seemingly destined to be one of the best-kept secrets many would never get to hear, a coterie of class, integrity at the expense of class.
This is therefore the band's fifth formal outing, and in the time that's flown since their origin over a decade ago, a lot of troubled water has passed under John Bramwell's battered bridge of song. The Sky at Night again features Guy Garvey at the helm, aided by fellow Elbowteer Craig Potter, and when work on the album began, Elbow was seemingly destined for a success that had foiled and eluded it as well: A Mercury Award, and The Seldom Seen Kid becoming a smash. The Seldom Seen Kid contained the song "Friend of Ours" dedicated to the late Bryan Glancy, who had fronted The Mouth, the earliest incarnation of what became I Am Kloot, and there the history becomes the soonness of now, as the symmetry of association continues to evolve.
Bramwell concedes that the album's songs evolved from a protracted period of insomnia. His usual creative modus operandi, having a drink and seeing what unfolds, meant that writing became a defense against his inability to sleep, and there is sadness within, but of a curiously uplifting nature. His personal loss is definitely the listener's gain, and the album is a stunningly assured work of considerable grit and refinement, which is precisely where true class resides.
The band had seemed to be evolving into something akin to a solid rock punch, driven by the powerhouse of Andy Hargreaves, a drummer whose skills veers from sophisticated jazziness to an extreme a la Keith Moon, and Peter Jobson, whose insistently inventive bass lines slink from a faint heartbeat to sonic punch. Garvey's production has dislocated this muscularity of tone into a more diverse but no less explosive approach.
Bramwell's voice has always had a pained eloquence, but now it has the setting it deserves; at times vulnerable, conversational, and waspish, he soars above the soundscapes proving himself not just their equal, but their lord and their deserving master. Proceedings begin with "Northern Skies," a delightful piece of skiffle-fired pop that deceptively builds into a beautifully orchestrated affair, understated and cool. There is a melancholy, bare bar-room confessional from "To the Brink": I'll raise a glass, a smile or two. This stuff strips the life from your bones I would like to leave with you but I leave alone... It is as though Scott Walker got down on his luck, abandoned in monochrome somewhere in the North of England; he is left in old pubs by ship canals, misses the Thames, the color of the metropolis, and the life he knew he deserved but didn't win. The sadness in the song, though, isn't regional, but universal, and all too easily recognized, but tears on a bar just look like drips from another drunkard's carelessness.
"Fingerprints" is Kloot at its quirky, skippy, jocular pop finest, but tempered with a distinct air of resignation. It is a song that deals with the awareness of the end that resides at the beginning of everything wonderful. A strangely spectral chorus thrills and chills as the affair descends with a cello-led coda of Eleanor Rigby-like sadness. Chipped perfection at its best. "Lately" begins with Bramwell intoning, "Lately it's been a struggle/To make up what is left of my mind" over a funereal drum. Here is a song that challenges and channels the fear of losing the plot, but nails that worry with words set to music, emerging on the other side, all staccato piano and strings. It stands as a tremendous amalgam of Joe Cocker's "With a Little Help from My Friends," the drama stripped of the bull-at-a-gate histrionics, and "Anyone Who Had a Heart." Since Dusty Springfield is no longer in the building, it should fall into the skinny fingers of Amy Winehouse to add the feminine angst, but Bramwell is sublime as he does his best take yet of Patti Smith impersonating John Lennon.
What follows in "I Still Do" is a perfect paean of eloquence and longing. When I was a child I looked up at the sky. thought I saw you and I in the cloud passing by. When I was a boy I looked at the sea Thought I saw you and me in the waves on the beach. And I still do I still do... It is a profoundly moving expression of tainted optimism and remembering from Bramwell's school of urban Zen, which adequately confirms Pete Doherty's recent assertion that he is one of the finest songwriters in Britain. An almost proggy sub-text inhabits "The Moon Is a Blind Eye." It isn't a stairwell to Heaven, more their moving pavement for the earthbound. Epic and sublime, encapsulated in a masterful arrangement infused by a telling lyric. The sun he glorifies the heavens but he never sees the stars... and the moon is a blind eye.
There is a revisit of "Proof," a great song poorly served in the past by Kloot's old label, who shelved its release as a single, which proved the parting, final straw for the band. It now has all the flirty cheekiness they are rightly adored for, and this version retains the original sheen by adding greater brightness. "It's Just the Night" echoes the dignity and refinement of Japan's moody masterpiece "Ghosts," emerging as a classy classic of intense restraint, and is the perfect forerunner to the eerie Gothic strangeness of "Radiation". Think "Space Oddity" in tandem with Klaatu's wonderfully wigged out "Calling Members of Interplanetary Craft," which only the Carpenters could have succeeded in sanitizing. Here Bramwell becomes a strange evangelist who has landed in a slowly growing strawberry field, a manic sweet preacher in a polyphonic spree; it builds and grows as he calls the faithful to the fore, remembering the walrus in the process. It is one of the most joyous and affecting songs you'll hear for a long time. Baffling and unique, it yields a perfect impressionistic sense of psyched-out optimism.
"Same Shoes" grounds the proceedings with a Parisian noir cadence of night turning to dawn, and "the same clown in the same shoes" closing with a deft brush of cymbal as all falls quiet. There is a rare, raw poetry in Bramwell's lyrics, something he simply shrugs off, but perhaps others are best placed to see what originators merely produce by default as they move from one song to another. "Sky at Night" stands as an assured and strangely beautiful confection that heralds their arrival to the wider world. That success can still come through verve and determination rather undermines the present ethos of fame in an instant. Arrive slowly to tarry long.
I Am Kloot deserves to ensnare those who are unaware of its qualities of eloquence, beauty, and sadness. That they will find a band with such a varied and exquisite legacy will be their reward. Eleven years in and already this is only the beginning of another chapter. After the sky at night we can look forward to the days that sleeplessness blinked upon with the promise of overnight success, and were it not for the darkness we would never gaze upon the stars....