Aqualung - Memory Man
Remember Strange and Beautiful (I'll Put a Spell On You)? No? How about Brighter Than Sunshine, a track that soundtracked about a gazillion US movies and TV imports? Well, those two tracks were a pretty good intro to Aqualung aka Matt Hales and his own brand of piano-based ballads. I know what you're thinking: one mention of 'piano-based ballads' and it's time to get the fook out of Dodge. Aqualung is not a prospect to be sniffed at, however. Sure, this thirtysomething British songwriter hardly has the biggest profile despite this being his third album. Scour the web and it's impossible to find a single mention of him that doesn't liken his music to Snow Patrol, Keane, Coldplay, etc. Oh, and he's supported The Fray. Warning signs a-go-go, right? My advice to you is to just listen. This is an album that won me over and one that, at the very least, does not lack ambition; in his own words, as featured on his website bio, Memory Man features everything from "fucked up space rock to ghostly glockenspiel, from old fashioned piano songs to linear soundscaping. And I was reading Beckett and Blake and thinking about fatherhood and fate and love and death and the future, so that's in there too."
After reading that, you might be expecting something completely otherwordly, a sick new prog-rock that only aliens might have heard before. Well, it's not that good. It is a solid album, though, and one that takes straight songwriting and imbues it with a fresh and layered - but never overpowering - production approach. Opening singles Cinderella and Pressure Suit, released yesterday, are essentially simple but effective piano ballads touched up with impressive electronic flourishes, the former's discordant chord changes and electric guitar sounding like an update of U2's Electrical Storm. This is what you can expect throughout, a compromise between old-school songmanship and studio trickery that never feels like a compromise. Occasionally, Hales enters more straightforward singer/songwriter territory, as on Glimmer and album closer Broken Bones (although this track's intro features an extended distorted vocal). He goes for the radio hit on Rolls So Deep, an engaging track that has its touchstones at the base of '70s pop-rock, and truly impresses with the epic Outside, which is surely what Sigur Ros would sound like if they made lovelorn pop songs. Memory Man's two most essential moments come when Hales pushes the experimentation he is constantly flirting with, as on The Lake, an eerie piano-led oddity that sounds like the result of a meeting between Thom Yorke and Tim Burton's go-to music guy, Danny Elfman. The deceptively simple Garden of Love, which prioritises piano and features the usual love-tangled lyrics, transforms into something truly affecting during an unexpected last-act left turn, where the quiet power of Hales's own vocal is replaced by the commanding presence of Paul Buchanan's guest spot, as if a voice from above has descended to deliver an epiphany.
So please don't be alarmed by all the misleading reference points which admittedly put me off a tad. Although it's not truly original or wildly experimental, enough effort has been put in to make Memory Man a rewarding listening experience. If you're big into, say, hip-hop or dance music then, needless to say, this probably won't be for you although the subtle electronic elements (think The Postal Service maybe?) might warrant a listen. Anyone who is a fan of well-crafted songs, though, who is sick of the utterly bland MOR shopping music littering the charts, could do a lot worse than forking out a tenner for this.