Australian violinist Padma Newsome is probably best known these days as the unofficial sixth member of the National, but for more than a decade now he’s led his own quartet alongside Bryce Dessner, bassoonist Rachael Elliott and percussionist Thomas Kozumplik. The Creatures In the Garden of Lady Walton is the four-piece’s first LP since 2006, and a fairly radical departure from their previous four.
One of the highlight’s of 2006’s Lantern was the title track, and the only vocal piece on the record. A delicate piece of folkish melancholy, it stood out from the neo-classical chamber pieces around it. It’s the direction that the quartet have taken with the new record with just two of the ten tracks instrumental.
Lady Walton is also the group’s most eclectic work, even if there is a unifying mood of reflection. Cocodrillo is a fairly radical opener, a modern take on the Renaissance madrigal sung in the round. Track three is also an eye opener, introducing guest singer Shara Worden, a classically trained soprano. The lyrics to On the Edge are fragmentary to say the least, but Worden’s voice, while a little plummy, is a wondrous instrument.
There is something very English about the record, in a sense of the bucolic England already being mourned as lost by the likes of Ralph Vaughan Williams and George Butterworth nearly a century ago. Which is odd given that none of the performers are English. The great strength of the album is that it doesn’t resemble in the slightest the work of dilettantes, but is a natural and organic synthesis of ancient and modern. Dessner’s guitar work and guest singers Sufjan Stevens and Matt Berninger (whose distinctive baritone on Last Song is, if anything, even more miserable than anything on High Violet!) co-exist perfectly with early music ensemble the Osso String Quartet with their viola da gambas and theorbos.
Previous Clogs albums have all had obvious highlights as well as a few tracks that have seemed a bit anonymous. On this record, though, every track stands out distinctively. As an ensemble, Clogs often take a back seat to their guests, but each of the four still shines – especially Newsome whose violin is full of yearning and sweet sorrow. It’s to their credit, too, that none of the guests comes over like a star turn, although Worden can’t help but dominate on her tracks.
As a postscript, I haven’t written anything yet about the new National album. Mainly through lack of time when it came out, but partly due to the fact that there were probably more reviews already than were strictly necessary. But to chip in my view, I found the production too dense at first, although I liked the fact that Matt Berninger was mixed to the fore. I’m getting used to the sound of the record. As for the songs, like Boxer, these are slow burners that seem to get better with every listen, rather than the more immediate material on Alligator. Like the Clogs record, it’s one of my favourite releases of the year. And 2010 has been really strong in my view.