THE COMPANY OF MEN
Sounds Of The Century (Vitesse)
It’s not a great time if you’re wanting to be heard but not wanting to shout. Is it ever?, you may ask. Yeah, fair point, as might have been highlighted by Elliott Smith – and more about him soon - but these days the clamour is strong, ears are burdened and attention spans have limited life expectancy.
Releasing records whose volume levels are set no more than halfway around the dials and whose vocals generally stay at close-talking, or at least lean in to catch it all, levels is a bold move. You have to really want to hear to hear, if you catch my drift – anything less and both albums serve as pretty backgrounders.
Filling those records with songs about a remembered/imagined childhood where revelation is far less important than the landscape of experiences (as Melbourne’s Ben Mason does) or about a sense of humanity as more than code and reprisals (as Switzerland’s The Company Of Men do), doesn’t just add to the risk, it amplifies it. We may say we don’t judge on appearances but quiet and lightly touched can be seen as innocent or naïve, merely pleasant or insubstantial – and that doesn’t wash for some.
Something similar is often at play in the work of and reaction to Dog Trumpet, whose album, Great South Road https://www.bernardzuel.net/post/dog-trumpet-great-south-road-review was reviewed here recently. And yet that album contains multitudes.
When Mason sings, in a manner that suggests unspoiled wonder, about the pleasures of friendship discovered and explored without secondary thought, in Like At First Sight, the easily enunciated lines, the picked guitar, the unrolled lead voice and backing voices at even more ease, and the simplicity of emotion, all mark the song as free of judgement as it is of weight. But that doesn’t rob it of its gentle appeal.
Nor does it negate – in fact it enhances – the breeze of anxiety which passes later over The Land Where The Sun Sets, where a not wholly-formed need to “get away from here” set inside a slightly claustrophobic room of cloudier voices and tremulous organ, doesn’t overplay its hand, or its drama, but touches a truth like a mid ‘60s Paul Simon song.
Indeed, you can argue that the open spaces but low sky of the album’s closer, Always Alone, is built on the way the character on the swaying jauntiness that is T Bus, or the child beginning to understand that adults might be explainable in the hummed intimacy of Sticks – and for that matter the 7-year-old wandering out in the middle of the night to discover his parents on the job in the very Dog Trumpet-like surfside ride, That Night - have created a believable world of small but significant meaning.
While The Company Of Men’s second album is set in an adult world, it too begins with what might be a wistful look back to a moment before things turned, Summer Only Lasts A Day offering a haze of warmth and poignancy mixing with a big bodied guitar twang and a stretch-out-and-wait vocal.
Chunkier sonically than Mason, the Men nonetheless bring a similar aesthetic of inside voice and delicacy. Things That Don’t Have A Name and This Time I Know bring forth Simon & Garfunkel via Kings Of Convenience: fragile lead voice buoyed by a companion vocal, wafer thin guitar augmented by gradually thickening arrangement; When There Was Time pulls you closer to the fire and lets woodwind circle you; One Meaningful Chord is the suggestion of folkish shape filled with wisps of pop air.
You, The Night And Me, like the similarly placed (both are track four, weirdly), and similarly coloured That Night on Mason’s album, is the most overt Elliott Smith moment with its shuffle and solidity made so transportable by a melody that may throw to a summer breeze makes me feel fine mood but actually allows space for a darkening.
But the limpid waltz of The Light Under The Sea, in a similar way to Mason’s Always Alone, fulfils the Smith comparisons by mood and feel, lit by a kind of muted light which nonetheless holds back the strongest dark.
Maybe it’s ok right now to speak softly, but carry a big Smith*.
(*Hey, I’m here all week!)