Sunday, May 06, 2012

Heliotropism: Lightships – ‘Electric Cables’ and F.C.B. Cadell

lightship – a moored or anchored boat with a beacon light to warn or guide ships at sea (Oxford Dictionary of English)
On our family holidays when I was a child, we’d quite often visit Iona. It was a God thing, there’s no getting around that – we’d stay at the abbey, and there would be groups of activities all week. Pottery, candle-making, singing, and so on. When M. went a few years ago as part of a holiday to Skye, he reported that it was full of people in chunky sweaters with beards, which was probably also the case in the 1980s, but (let’s not be churlish – and) my memories of the island are entirely fond. I loved the scale of the place, the rocky beaches with red and green stones; the abandoned marble quarry; the old, cold stone of the abbey; the doves on its roof, which you could feed with grain and they’d stand on your arms and head, which only hurt a little bit when they dug in their claws for a better grip. The journey there took two ferries, one to Mull, a fairly large car ferry; and the second tiny and thrilling, as its open-front design allowed the sea to slosh all over the place in bad weather (there was a hinged drawbridge-type guard which took half the short crossing to raise). Cal Mac ferries, both. Two things have triggered these memories this year. One was the F.C.B. Cadell exhibition in Edinburgh (now handily transferred, in truncated form, to Dundee) which had a whole room of landscape paintings of Iona from the 1910s - 30s, luminous with white sand and blue sea. The other was the video for Lightships’ ‘Two Lines’ single, a collage of swiftly moving scenes from Scotland’s west coast, sea-gulls, holidaymakers, a Cal Mac ferry; escape from the city to where the land runs out, and nature weaves its way back in.

Cadell painted quickly on Iona, using small boards and an absorbent ‘white gesso ground’, which allowed his oils to dry more quickly, the catalogue tells us. Furthermore,
It is low-lying, so the light reflected from the surrounding sea intensifies the colours of the white sand beaches and the green of its pastures. The light shining through the shallow waters at the edge of the shore creates brilliant colours of emerald green, blue and violet. In addition, the light and weather change frequently, as the prevailing winds cause a quick succession of cloudy and then clear intervals. (Alice Strang, F.C.B. Cadell, p. 77)
The artist has to chase the sunlight; or wait for it, rather, and then pretend in his work that it was never absent. This is also the approach of Lightships’ Electric Cables, which is positively sun-drenched. Look at the song titles: ‘The Warmth of the Sun’, ‘Girasol’, ‘Photosynthesis’, ‘Sunlight to the Dawn’. I mean, there is sunshine in Glasgow, but this is hardly representative. Like flowers, leaves and Cadell, Lightships aren’t content to let the sun come to them, but bend towards it (another song title is ‘Stretching Out’; a lyric in ‘Girasol’ has sunflowers ‘slowly turn towards the sun’). Likewise, they stretch towards seaside towns and islands, towards peace and light, from roots in the city; and it’s the city which can cram a large, dark room with people eager to hear this music, as it did on Friday at the CCA; it’s the city which allowed this record to happen. So there’s a tension to it, for all that it appears so tranquil. ‘Muddy Rivers’ suggests something of this, describing the path of a river from source to sea via mill wheel and factory:
From the open hills to the crowded shore
It carried the stains from the factory floor
It’s all related, in other words: industrialisation could only happen because of nature’s resources. Both the band’s name and the record’s name could be taken to refer to civilisation at the extremities: it is the electricity cable which brings the benefits of industrialisation and infrastructure to the remote hamlet; it is the lightship which provides navigational guidance when motorways and road signs are far behind.

The lightship, too, provides a link with The Pastels, via their ‘Mechanised’, a song about a lighthouse. The album is on their label, Geographic, and there are all kinds of cross-pollination involved in that association. Gerry Love, whose band this is, plays in the current Pastels line-up, for a start, and his song ‘Sweet Days Waiting’, from the last Teenage Fanclub album, seemed to draw on the sound of the slowed down, pillow-soft version of ‘Thru Your Heart’ which has been in their set for a while. Tom Crossley, whose flute provides much of the light in this album all about light, is a bigger influence still. His recordings with International Airport have a lot in common with how Electric Cables has turned out: they share a kind of organic density, a complex sound which seems to have grown naturally, not according to any plan. But where International Airport’s songs themselves follow this logic, meandering unpredictably and bursting occasionally from the undergrowth into pop, Lightships’ are pop from the off, full of melody, warmth and restraint, like Gerry’s Teenage Fanclub songs always are, but built on this white gesso ground, this iridescent sound which cuts the Big Star cord and lets them float off on their own adventure. ‘Two Lines’ seems to lift into flight within seconds, hanging in major seventh heaven on an everlasting delay, and I can’t see 2012 producing a better single than ‘Sweetness in her Spark’ – I love the way it fumbles into being, its insistent guitar motif absent for a few bars whilst it gets underway. I’m not going to force an opinion on the rest, except to say that it’s all beautifully of a piece (Jon Dale has some interesting things to say about its stylistic palette), and I look forward to each point of light drawing me out in turn over the summer months.

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