Call In The Crash Team – album review

It has been over a year since I posted on this blog, a yawning gap that horrifies me. WordPress is suggesting I might like to riff on the keywords ‘toddler, delicious, politics.’ True, my thoughts these days are often split between dinner and Lego. But after a spell consumed by maternity leave and then the ongoing global pandemic, I’m back on the blog to review a really timely, genre-defying album I’ve been listening to, a new project featuring Poet Laureate Simon Armitage, a musical collaboration which foregrounds the spoken word.

Simon Armitage was a big influence on me as a young writer. I remember picking up ‘Zoom’ in an independent bookshop in Chesterfield and hiding away in the corner by the coffee shop to read it from cover to cover, enchanted by the wise-cracking narrators and shrewd observations of life experiences that didn’t seem so alien from my own. His succinct portraits of characters in crisis and his gift for finding surreal but convincing images might seem to make his work well suited for song-writing. But this project isn’t songs exactly, more poetry-meets-melody.

pc_ Steve Gullickpress shot 3
Photo credit: Steve Gullickpress

‘Call In The Crash Team’ is a debut album from a group who call themselves L Y R. The band features Simon along with musicians Patrick Pearson and Richard Walters and the music has been described as “poetic passages spoken over the kind of ambient post-rock favoured by Radiohead or Sigur Ros”. I’ve always loved the strange, almost post-industrial melancholy of bands like those. My interest was piqued. Every track on the album is written by Simon from the perspective of a fictional character dealing with different moments of crisis,. Listening to it from the vantage point of what we all keep calling ‘uncertain times’ or ‘unsettled times’ seemed apt.

My own experience of combining poetry and music has been mixed: I’ve worked with a flamenco guitarist, with composers and baroque orchestras and experimental theatre. Often, the melodies and words can feel like strangers at a party, introduced by a well intentioned mutual friend (‘oh, Fred, you MUST meet Helen, you’ll have so much in common…’). The friend departs and there’s an awkward silence, the awful overwhelming sense of expectation. My most successful experiences of musical collaboration have come when I’ve written something independently and then let the musicians interpret it however they wanted – projects like The Singing Glacier or ‘PROPELLOR‘, or my experience of collaborating with Lippy Kid. In short, I like to hand over the poem and leg it.

‘Call In The Crash Team’ foregrounds Simon Armitage’s words and voice, but there’s a sense of genuine dialogue between music and lyrics, haunting refrains emphasising the narrative of each piece. I found it strangely addictive, tracks instantly sticking in my head, becoming peculiar earworms. The album opens with the melodious, ‘The First Time’, a track that walks the delicate line between bittersweet and bitter, a narrator lamenting lost time and dredged-up lost love. The music reminded me of floating on my back in the cavernous swimming pool in Chesterfield, light playing on the white ceiling. The whole album has that underwater feeling to it, a sense of immersion: there are repeated phrases, echoed words, tense rhythms.

‘Call In The Crash Team’ parades a host of troubled characters before us, hitchhikers, cautious lovers, drivers and dreamers. They often seem almost breathless, rendered inarticulate by the sadness of their experience (I imagine the whole album set against a backdrop of austerity) and yet they’re dab hands at sharp one-liners. There are urban myths and terse reflections, much that readers of Armitage’s poetry will be familiar with. The album title is drawn from the lyrics of ‘Zodiac T-shirt’, a dreamy piano track that evokes the hot distance of teenage summers: ‘Zodiac T-shirt, paperclip bracelet, Mercury Rising, call in the crash team’… A standout track is the funny, disconcerting ‘Great Coat’, where upbeat sounds contrast with a slightly menacing, claustrophobic inheritance narrative: ‘turning your shadow into a coat was darkness embodied, a master stroke’…  Throughout, the sung words shadow the spoken words, often creating a sense of obsession or fixation, emphasising memorable phrases and lines.

press - credit daniel broadley
Photo credit: Daniel Broadley

I interviewed Richard from the band about the process behind the album:

HM: I enjoyed the way that the pieces on ‘Call In The Crash Team’ foreground the speaker’s voice and tell stories, while the music communicates emotion and gives emphasis. Was it your intention to make the lyrics the heart of the album?
RW: Always – Simon’s words cue everything else, both in terms of melody and atmosphere. The project started with Simon sending a dictaphone full of readings, each with its own natural rhythm and tone, and Patrick & I then had to build around those. It was an absolute joy to find the right setting for each piece.
HM: How important do you think voice, tone and accent are with spoken lyrics? When I think about the words on this album, I find it impossible to think of them in anyone’s voice but Simon’s….
Simon’s delivery adds so much depth and weird emotion I think…it’s a very restrained delivery, but it allows the songs and the words to be heard without distraction. It’s hard to imagine anyone else reading them, even as I look at the words on the page I hear his voice. We did work with the actress Florence Pugh recently, and it was fascinating to hear her performance of Simon’s poem ‘Lockdown’. 
HM: What were the first song lyrics you remember loving and latching on to as a kid? What kinds of lyrics stuck in your head?
RW: I’ve always loved lyrics that seem to condense a moment or a time into a line, a full story in a couplet…details, small everyday items or activities given new meaning. I remember hearing ‘St Swithins Day’ by Billy Bragg in my early teens and being absolutely blown away; that was at the height of rather meaningless Britpop lyrics, often words just felt like something to hold the melody together, and then suddenly here’s Billy Bragg making me laugh and sob and want to know more about this couple. It’s a perfect song, lyrically: 

The Polaroids that hold us together
Will surely fade away
Like the love that we spoke of forever
On St Swithin’s Day

HM: A silly question…how do you imagine people listening to ‘Call In The Crash Team’? What do you think the ideal listening experience would be? I listened while dancing around the kitchen with a jam-covered toddler!
RW: Ha, multi-tasking! Well, as it’s coming out at (possibly) the tail-end of lockdown, I just hope it fits into people’s lives in any way it can and offers a little brain escape. Personally, I think it’s not a passive listen, in my opinion it needs to be heard clearly and not just in the background; it’s detail heavy both in terms of the words and the music, and I think deserves attention…but I suppose every artist would say that about their own record!
HM: I love those ‘if you liked this, you might like…’ recommendations that platforms like Spotify give listeners. If you were to suggest some albums / songs / books / poems that branch out from this album (or that acted as tributaries for it), what would they be?
RW: There were a few records we discussed at the start of the recording process, more as music fans than makers, just creative touchstones for each of us; the soundtrack to ‘Arcadia’ by Adrian Utley and Will Gregory, the last two albums by Talk Talk, anything by the Blue Nile…all music that is quietly emotive and a little dark. Just how we like it. 
I hope to be back on this blog more often this summer posting about things that have got my attention through lockdown and beyond!



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