Aqualung - Still Life
There's far too little use of the harpsichord in music today so when it appears seven songs in to Aqualung's Still Life album on the track Extra Ordinary Thing, it's both surprising and in keeping with the stickiness of rich sounds all over this album. Vibrophone, Rhodes piano, Leslie rotating speaker and harpsichord - recorded at Alexander Skeaping's Harpsichord Emporium, no less - have not only the most wonderful names ever given to instruments outside of Fender's output of the fifties and sixties but offer such an deep, creaking sound that no one employing them could help but offer them space in which to be heard. All credit then to Aqualung for unfolding rock and letting glimpses of these instruments through; that they have the songs to match is all the better.
Southampton-born Matt Hales, who is effectively the only member of Aqualung, has spent a good few years to get to this point. That he is still young is testament to the age at which he began recording - Hales has already gone through a scholarship to study music, the composition of a symphony, a tribute band to The Police, a Britpop band Ruth and a stint in The 45's - before forming Aqualung and following last year's eponymous debut comes Still Life in which Hales persists with a bittersweet look at love.
Given the growth from their debut album to this, it is odd that the song linking the two - Brighter Than Sunshine, which opens this album - is one that appears entirely unrelated to any others. Taking a melody and a couple of chords from Tears For Fears' Sowing The Seeds Of Love, the song replaces the pseudo-psychedelia of that track with a chorus that floats between soaring skywards and falling back to Earth, pulling the song back just as it threatens to drift away.
Should Coldplay ever decided to open up their sound, let it breathe a little and give Chris Martin the option of standing behind something other than an upright piano or acoustic guitar, it's possible that they could sound a little like Aqualung. On Left Behind, for example, the pounding drums from A Rush Of Blood To The Head's Politik make a reappearance whilst Easier To Lie offers a chorus that still punches between bruised verses, similar to, if falling a little short of, Yellow from Parachutes.
Never, though, do Aqualung sound as if the guitar/bass/drums of thousands of bands before them is limiting their ambition. 7 Keys, though the sixth track on the album, mixes four guitars on the opening verse - backwards, clean, stuttering and with Leslie rotating speaker - all of which give way to a burst of distortion that enters solely to introduce the chorus before the song ends with a fluttering of electronica. Why Still Life works is that never once does any effect or sound come to dominate the album - each song could only have been recorded with voice and piano and Still Life would only have suffered slightly
What the album misses, however, is a track that's capable of upsetting the listener with ever so subtle a feeling of there being a shadow under otherwise still waters. In going back to Coldplay, the heartbreaking songs of Parachutes worked all the better with Spies offering an early chill but Still Life just lacks that one song that would have made it great.
Whilst some may feel the comparisons to Coldplay are overplayed somewhat, there is an obvious link between the two. Both Matt Hales and Chris Martin have voices that drift between being barely there and soaring above the melody yet whilst it could be argued that Coldplay have the stronger set of songs, Aqualung's skill in arranging each track with a subtly different set of sounds, effects and other touches is undeniable. Anyone who finds a place in their lives for Parachutes will find an equal amount of time for Still Life and, with his second album, now will be the time to grow to love Matt Hales should you not have done so already.