Monolithic and minimal, Wings of Joy conjures up the idea that Cocteau Twins and Swans once exchanged their musical DNA. A twilight marble edifice of lonely, ominous piano and stark beats marked by the occasional shocking bursts of industrial-strength guitar fuzz (as on the tremendous “Starblood”), it’s a difficult but ultimately rewarding record. The neo-classical sonic watercolors are intriguing (the pretty “Tomorrow’s Tears” is as haunting as anything from the 17 Seconds/Faith-era Cure; “Watersong” was appropriately ethereal enough for perfumier Guerlain to use it as the theme for a European ad campaign), but it’s obvious that Cranes, a quartet from Portsmouth, England, transcends the constraints of this bleak backdrop by dint of chanteuse Alison Shaw. Her faraway, childlike tone instantly recalls Claire Grogan of Altered Images (though Shaw is dead serious — not bubbly) and, to a lesser extent, Cocteau warbler Liz Fraser (but never as obscure). The contrast built up between Shaw’s obsessive sing-song reveries and the forbidding music (composed entirely by her brother Jim) gives the whole thing a special frisson. “Beautiful Sadness” aptly described the entire disc.
Even with improved designs, Cranes still sound relatively minimal on Forever, but the arrangements are allowed to breathe, adding color and humanity to the aloof core of darkness. “Far Away” and “And Ever” are dominated by warm piano. The keening opener “Everywhere” and “Jewel” have lush acoustic strumming. (A remix of the latter by avid fan Robert Smith — he’d earlier chosen Cranes as the Cure’s opening band — resulted in a European hit.) The corrugated guitar ferocity of the debut’s “Starblood” is reawakened on “Sun and Sky” and “Clear,” which also incorporates sirens and congas. Creepy yet joyous, the single “Adrift” best showcases Cranes’ essential stylistic contrasts.
Cranes began plotting a double-set encompassing regular Cranes songs as well as pieces influenced by French-literature-fan Shaw’s interest in The Flies, an expressionistic play by Sartre. Ultimately, the two projects were divided, and the former portion was released as Loved, Cranes’ most accomplished and diverse disc to date. “Shining Road” has an enchanting pop melody and rushing guitar pulse, “Lilies” flirts with fragile funkiness and “Paris and Rome” feels like a European music-box waltz. Using odd squeaking noises and distant whammy-bar twangs, “Beautiful Friend” cunningly fashions an unusual ambient/western hybrid; the title track actually rocks. The CD appends top-notch remixes of three songs by Flood and Michael Brauer.
The Sartre material was issued a year later as the Tragedy of Orestes & Electre mini-album. Shaw emotes solely (and fetchingly) in French throughout. The semi-industrial soundscapes, built mainly of samples and simple, circus-like piano/string motifs, resemble some of Philip Glass’ and Tom Waits’ soundtracks — if interpreted by Coil or Foetus. Interesting, but for existentialists and Cranatics only.
Before signing with Dedicated, the Shaw siblings recorded two primitive efforts as a duo — the self-released cassette-only Fuse, and a vinyl mini-LP, Self Non Self, later reissued on CD in the UK by Dedicated.