Jerome Alexander’s ‘Message to Bears‘ project provided Oxfordshire music with one of its finest records of 2008 in the shape of ‘EP One’, a collection of hushed, hypnotic instrumentals, dominated by dreamlike strings and translucent acoustic guitars with a dash of scratchy electronica. Everyone I’ve played it to has loved it, whether they were seen-it-all-before music producers, professional scientists or Christmas party animals. ‘Departures’ the full-length album that follows that first-rate debut, is every bit as wonderful as its predecessor.
Despite the title, there is no great departure in style from the earlier record. The recording is significantly more professional (less stool-squeaking), and the string arrangements are lusher, but the almost-painful pastoralism, the craftsmanship in construction and above all the cinematic potential are all present in spades. Songs like ‘Autumn’ almost make one want to go off and write a screenplay. You simply can’t live in Oxfordshire and listen to music like this without thinking of the landscapes near Uffington, the chalk downs above Blewbury or even those strange villas observable from the train between Cholsey and Goring. This music may be timeless but it’s anything but placeless.
Highlights are too many to mention. ‘Hidden Beneath’ plays with a four-to-the-floor dance beat, but what really matters is Alexander’s guitar-picking, a shining, bell-like sound so distinctive he could almost patent it. ‘Pretend to Forget’ is heart-crackingly desolate, with a gorgeously dissonant cello and violin part to complement the intricate guitar work. ‘Hope’ dispenses with the guitars, leaving the strings to work the magic. Beginning with a series of mighty, sustained chords redolent of Barrington Pheloung’s scores for Inspector Morse, the track then expands majestically with the introduction of tremoloed triple-time violins and further deepening of the chord structure by the addition of inner parts. This is the sound of a popular composer at his meridian.
Elsewhere on the record, Alexander allows himself to depart from formula a little. ‘November’ uses piano as the main rhythm instrument, rather than his usual guitar, taking him temporarily into Eric Satie territory, while remaining consistent with the vision of the album. On ‘At the Top of This Hill’, he even allows himself to sing a little (hum, really) and his sister Gemma is pressed into vocal service on the otherwise slightly dull track ‘Snowdonia’. The record ends with an eerie little sequence of high-frequency Rhodes piano chords, with the title ‘Lost Birds’.
So finishes a magnificent piece of modern-day musical impressionism. This is music of depth, vision and humanity: I find it hard to think that anyone could fail to be touched by the second half of ‘Hope’ or all of ‘Autumn’. Find it, buy it, love it.