Catenary Wires

  • Catenary Wires
  • Red Red Skies (UK Matinée) 2015  (Sp. Elefant) 2015 
  • Til The Morning (Ger. Tapete) 2019 
  • Birling Gap (UK Skep Wax) 2021  (UK Shelflife) 2021 

As the singer of Talulah Gosh and Heavenly, Amelia Fletcher was considered the female voice of English twee, that fizzy romantic effervescence of indie guitar-pop in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Guest work with the Pooh Sticks and Wedding Present added to her iconic status in a musical network that connected Swansea and London to Olympia, Washington. But nothing about her casual-sounding art was ever casual: there was always more depth and complexity to Heavenly, a band that ranged across styles and often took on topics more serious than kittens and crushes. The fact that Fletcher, who now holds a PhD and is both an OBE and a CBE, became a highly regarded economist while singing numbers like “Cool Guitar Boy” serves notice to listen deeper. While there are no lessons about supply side or cryptocurrency to be had here, one should consider the thought and care that a highly trained academic brings to any undertaking. Lyrics that seem to be about one thing might well be about something else altogether. And a jolly sound could well harbor a sinister or sad thought.

Following Marine Research and Tender Trap, Fletcher’s current venture is the Catenary Wires, which began as an appealing home-brew duo with her life partner Rob Pursey, who was a member (mainly as bassist) of all her previous outfits.

From the start, the band has been something of a narrated chronicle of the mature couple’s rural domesticity; reflective and loving in a settled and good-hearted family way. The mostly acoustic Red Red Skies sets the scene right off, as “Intravenous” declares “nothing ever comes between us / it’s the only way that we know.” But that’s just one view: in the next song, Fletcher is “waiting for the day when you walk away” and warns that “all the things that felt so good / contained the seeds of what would feel so wrong.” Both sing, sometimes together in a lovely blend of her reedy soprano and his worn-in baritone, over low-key melodic music that gently supports the vocals. After such wry interludes as “The Records We Never Play” and “Throw Another Love Song on the Fire,”  the brief album ends on a sad note. As Fletcher rarely dramatizes her singing to match a subject, it’s tempting to overlook the deep pain expressed in “Things I Love,” which enumerates a litany of beloved cultural artifacts that have become ruined by a past association: “Why do things I love / Remind me of someone I don’t?”

Added musicians flesh out the sound on Til the Morning, an altogether different sort of record. Pursey and Fletcher continue to explore the ebb and flow of couplehood, only here with keyboards, electric guitar, melodica, horns and cello that sometimes threaten to shroud the multi-tracked vocals in the mix. Rich and slow, the handsome minor-key arrangements support a gloomy collection of songs about missed connections, mistakes made and worries harbored. “Half-Written,” “Dancing” and “Dark Brown Eyes” all undercut romantic impulses with anxiety and doubt. “Tie Me to the Rails,” the verse of which bears a passing resemblance to Iggy’s “The Passenger,” is an abject apology (“She was just a crush / Not meant to undermine you”). Breaking the mood, the peppy “I’ll Light Your Way Back” weaves a complex skein of the two voices in an enigmatic travelogue that is perhaps about the stresses of touring. Indicative of the album’s emotional seesaw, the beautifully sung title track warns “If you hold me tight then maybe we can ride it / If you let me go I don’t think we’ll survive.”

But survive they did, returning two years later with a wonderful single that unveils a substantial — and delightful — rethink.  A prelude to the mid-2021 album Birling Gap, “Mirrorball” is punched up with the kind of horn charts used by early ’80s bands like Haircut 100 and deploys the alternating male/female vocal scheme of “C is the Heavenly Option” to paint a wistful, charming picture of lonely hipsters facing the reality of their lives in “an ’80s disco.”

[Ira Robbins]

See also: Heavenly