Swimmer One - Dead Orchestras

Bill Cummings 30/06/2010

Rating: 4/5

Edinburgh three-piece and purveyors of fine electronic pop Swimmer One debut album 'The Regional Variations' of three years ago now, juxtaposed the human condition with delightfully bittersweet sounds, it drew favourable comparisons with fellow Scots The Blue Nile and The Associates, the clever pop noir of the Pet Shop Boys, and the artfulness of Bowie's recordings in Berlin. Previously they followed in the line of great synth pop double acts, singer Andrew Eaton was backed by musical boffin Hamish Brown, in the intervening period since their debut disc they've been joined by Laura Cameron Lewis who adds extra instrumentation and delicate backings.

Swimmer One now return with second album 'Dead Orchestras' which runs a carefully constructed line between Pulp's post Brit pop breakdown masterpiece 'This Is Hardcore' the sophisticated brooding of Roxy Music's 'Avalon' and the subtle flourishes of The Human League's later 'Crash' album.

Dead Orchestras is a concept album of sorts 'a collection of songs about the things we leave behind when we're gone- as parents, as lovers and as a species' and the theme of leaving permeates this record. The divine melodrama of 'Ghosts in the Hotel' is ushered in by twanging guitars and Eaton's plantitive melody that bristles with the unbearable lightness of being: a life spent on the move is no life at all, the picture of a salesmen moving from hotel to hotel, city to city but never leaving a mark is brought to life by the heartbreaking lyrics ('We're all just tourists here and all that's left are dust and bone and Ghosts in the Hotel') and a melody that remind me of a stripped back version of Morrissey's 'I Will See You in Far-Off Places'. In keeping with this mood 'The Erskine Bridge' is gorgeously melancholic slice of industrial balladry, dabbing keyboards and twinkling swathes ripple like the lake that our protagonist is considering throwing himself into, a chance to escape a romance that's crumbling like the bricks of the bridge, a life that is no longer fulfilling ('I'm tired of feeling numb/Like there's so much guilt and anger trapped inside/But there is nothing to do but jump to watch it all explode.')

The startling twelve-minute pop symphony of 'The Fakester Ressurection' is the album's center piece containing three movements: floating from a close up of the lonely existential angst of a spoken monologue that details the smiles we wear to cover up how we really feel, to a skittish crescendo of beats and home toward it's sedate orchestrated closing scenes. There are a couple of miss steps mind you the twisting guitars and flourishing melodies of 'You Have Fallen Way Short of Our Expectations' although initially welcoming, are kind of out of sync with the album's tapestry, and the insistent pleading thumps of 'Lorelei And Dorothy' seem kind of peripheral to the whole. But these are minor quibbles.

Large sections of 'Dead Orchestras' are also the soundtrack to the comedown, like a faded pop star looking back in unbearable slow motion at the emptiness of what his life has become, ironic given that Swimmer One have experienced the exact opposite, critical plaudits but largely overlooked in terms of commercial success. So we have the album's title track a clicking, flickering, ode to the end of the party, the end of the performance the death of the night, it could be a manifesto for Swimmer One and the imprint they want their music to leave on the world ('We tried hard to make beautiful things/ I hope we can make more than just stuff/ When we have gone I hope there's something in all this junk.') far from being a pounding electro banger, for the most part Swimmer One create subtle suites of sound, swirling keys glide across processed click tracks and dabbing blinking electro bleeps. But don't misunderstand me, it's not all mid-paced the rather striking beat of 'This Club is For Everybody, Even You' continues the theme, as fleeting moments of success are replaced with a hollowness of modern city life at the end of the night, they're delivered by Eaton with the kind of tender lived in restrained croon of Bryan Ferry and the vulnerability of Steven Merrit of the Magnetic fields, shifting from cracked to falsetto and back again, there's the suspicion that it disguises a repressed anguish, that makes one instantly warm to his voice. While the rippling disco throbs of 'Psychogeography' takes a anxious trip to the supermarket, dizzying in the materialism that overwhelms us, it's the sound of Depeche Mode being retooled for 2010. Closing with the haunting acoustic lament of 'All the Hits' that sits on the sidelines, stares into the middle distance and questions whether a career in music, was all worth it? (''think of them as your greatest hits/
they are yours to wear like armour/ This is a better time without the ridiculous rush of a hundred dance routines that simply leave you exhausted.'

Dead Orchestras shows a pleasing development from Swimmer One's debut 'Regional Variations' album which although containing some superb moments (notably 'Largs Hums) overall was a little too one paced and distant in parts. In contrast 'Dead Orchestras' is a proper album like what they used to make that can only be appreciated to in full in one full sitting, thus each song adds into a impressive jigsaw that contains several changes in pace, theme and mood, and there's the feeling that lead singer Eaton has found a more human, frail voice to add to their expertly crafted electronic pop woven with intricate organic instrumentation that bring them to life. This Dead Orchestra is now dealing with the themes of leaving, finishing a career, and dying, face up to questions that most electro pop could only dream of tackling, making you dance and making you think at the same time isn't an easy task, thus this ranks up there with the work of the Pet Shop Boys. With their finest record yet, Swimmer One have reinvigorated an oft overlooked and forgotten strand of existential electronic music.