Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Let's Eat Grandma

I, Gemini
director's cut, The Wire, June 2016)

by Simon Reynolds

Nationality feels like an impermissible topic to bring up when writing about the appeal of music.  Like something that’s vaguely discredited, or at least outmoded:  left behind for good (in both senses) in our post-geographical, distance-shrinking world.  Celebrating hybridity, intermixture and impurity is always going to seem more progressive than fetishising the essential, the unchanging, the parochial.  Yet national character continues to have a potent attraction.  Englishness of a particular musty sort seeps from every pore of eMMplekz’s dankly addictive Rook to TN34. And Englishness of a brightly enchanted kind forms a fragrant haze around I, Gemini , the debut album from Let’s Eat Grandma.

This teenage duo could hardly be more English, from their names – Jenny Hollingworth and Rosa Walton—to their singing voices, which have the crumbly texture of Wensleydale, reminding me at various points of Sophie from Detectorists, Cassie in Skins, and Lola from the kids’s animation series Charlie and Lola. The only time they break the spell of quintessential Englishness is their name – they should really be called Let’s Eat Granny.

Musically, too, they summon to mind a bunch of frightfully English things:  Danielle Dax, Matching Mole, Pram, Kate Bush.  Not that they ever really sound much like any of these. But the ballpark –  or should I say, cricket pitch – is the same: quirky, homespun, a little precious, child-like in a way that teeters close to twee but never crosses the line.  

Let’s Eat Grandma play up their Englishness and their tender years with the way they present in photo sessions and in the video for the single “Deep Six Textbook”. With their lace frocks, long golden tresses, and milky complexions, they come across a bit like modern-day equivalents of the miscreants behind the Cottingley Fairies photographs – girl-cousins who let their imaginations get away with them and fooled half the world. On “Deep Six Textbook,” Jenny and Rosa sing as classroom daydreamers who’d rather be communing with the starfish and the ocean than stuck indoors being trained for productive adulthood: “we live our lives in the textbook... I feel like standing on the desk and screaming ‘I DON’T CARE!’”.   Listening to their motley sound-palette, you often picture a school music room full of battered instruments: recorder, ukulele, electric organ, xylophone, triangle, rough-toned violin, the stray components of a drum kit, a long outmoded synth.  Song titles like “Chimpanzees in Canopies” and “Welcome To The Treehouse” evoke Nature Studies projects, school trips to the zoo, and back garden fun ’n’ games.

But the innocence doesn’t feel forced. At sixteen and seventeen, Hollingworth and Walton are barely out of childhood.  More like sisters than the friends-since-age-four they are, their voices appear to have grown alike through prolonged proximity, like plants entwining together in a neglected garden. Gemini is the Latin for twins and the album title I, Gemini seems to speak of a near-telepathic bond: a single mind shared across two bodies.

One of the emerging clich├ęs of today’s brainy music-making (and music-reviewing) is “world-building”. Everybody’s at it: constructing sprawling concept albums that are the audio setting for Game of   Thrones- scale sagas or epic near-future dystopias. I, Gemini sounds like a world, yes, but not one consciously assembled, just the byproduct of a private space of pure imagination that flourished between constant companions. Think Heavenly Creatures, without the upsetting ending. 

Sometimes the organic quality of I, Gemini feels a little off the cuff.  “Eat Shiitake Mushrooms” coalesces haphazardly at first, like a primary school music class converging around a tune, while “Sax in the City” sounds like a one-man band with its ukulele, toy cymbal, and honking horn. But the thrown-togetherness is deceptive:  there’s a consummate attentiveness to texture, structure, and, most vividly, space in evidence.  “Deep Six Textbook” sounds like a song heard with a seashell cupped to your ear. Its muzzy washes of Caravan-keyboard and stoic tick-tock beat set deep in the distance have me casting back to late Eighties recordings by A.R. Kane and Cocteau Twins for an equivalent sense of intimate emptiness. 

Norwich, the girls’ hometown, is a bustling city in a county that’s largely rural, full of flat expanses, and often considered a bit of a backwater.  Like an audio illustration for Raymond Williams’s English culture study The Country and The City, the album shuttles back and forth on a branch line that stretches from Virginia Astley to Lady Sovereign.  Just when you think they’re all about winsome pastoralism, Let’s Eat Grandma will start rapping – sounding, on “Eat Shiitake Mushrooms”, like Cranes’s baby-voiced Alison Shaw reborn as a grime MC from E3.  Whether sung or spat, Hollingworth & Walton’s slack enunciation belies their out-of-time, Picnic At Hanging Rock image:  this is actually a rather modern style of singing*, something you hear across the spectrum from Calvin Harris, Ellie Goulding and Selena Gomez to AlunaGeorge and James Blake.  But Let’s Eat Grandma push it further, smudging  fricatives and bilabials, making syllables fold and kink sideways,  half-swallowing their vowels or swilling them around the palate. It’s like they’re delectating in their own voice-stuff, and who could blame them?  

This meld of savory-sweet singing, moreish melody, glistening texture, strange space and surprises galore makes I, Gemini the best pop-not-pop album since Micachu & the Shapes’s Jewellery. (Without ever resembling it at all).  And as with that album, Gemini is backloaded: each new song better than the one that precedes. Things really take off as we pass the half-way mark. “Rapunzel” is their “Wuthering Heights”:  romanticism so gauchely gushing only 17 year olds can get away with it. The song starts with an upper-octave piano cycle that spins an atmosphere of twinkly magic, like the moment in Le Grand Meaulnes when the protagonist stumbles on the lost chateau in the forest. Then it gathers to a pounding pitch of tempestuous grandeur, with a storyline about a 7-year-old runaway from domestic discord suddenly stricken with the realization “I’m not having fun in this fairy tale”.  

“Sleep Song” likewise starts gently with wheezy harmonium and plangent crinkles of guitar, then the lullaby bends to the sinister with a babble of increasingly clashing voices, before spiraling into a sort of soaring plummet of night-terror.  A song in two parts, “Welcome To The Treehouse” is their “Cloudbusting”: the angelic screech of the vocals is the sound of hearts exploding, but who can tell whether they’re bursting with joy or dread.

The star sign Gemini  (mine, as it happens) has among its strengths imagination, quickness, and adaptability; among  its weaknesses, impulsiveness, flightiness, and  indecision. That all just sounds like the checklist for adolescence.   I Gemini ‘s allure for me as an aging expatriate is not just the reassuring idea that Englishness abides, but that adolescence is much the same as it ever was.  The trappings have changed – Instagram and Snapchat, rather than scrapbooks and pen pals – but the fundamental things apply:  boredom, longing, restlessness, wonder, lust, spite, curiosity, confusion.  “Oh yeah life goes on / Long after the thrill of livin’ has gone”, warned that least-English of all singers Johnny Cougar, before advising: “Hold onto sixteen as long as you can/Changes come around real soon make us women and men”.  If you can’t find still and grasp tight within yourself those sensations of unformed possibility, then second-best is to grab them vicariously, through music that’s as thrillingly alive and ardently awake as this.  


* - vowel-breaking, it's been called

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