Cardiff’s Young Marble Giants — singer Alison Statton and the Moxham brothers, Philip (bass) and Stuart (guitar, organ) — managed to stay together long enough to produce one oddball album before apathy got the upper hand. Using few overdubs, Colossal Youth re-creates the mythical ambience of a beatnik coffeehouse. Statton’s gentleness and the soft accompaniment contribute to a hushed mood that’s either soporific or enchanting, depending on your point of view (or blood pressure). Minimalism never had such polite advocates before. (The two-disc reissue adds the Testcard EP and other tracks for a thorough recap of the group’s remarkable existence.)
Following YMG, Statton joined Weekend, a trio with guitarists Simon Booth and Spike in which she sang and played bass; the session players on La Varieté are uncredited. Well ahead of the mid-’80s pack, the group tried to concoct a jazz-pop genre that a larger range of musical modes than such a concept might suggest. La Varieté offers a good outline of Weekend’s intentions, as a song that starts out in YMG mode gets transformed into a full-blown samba, complete with horn section. While not all of Weekend’s experiments here are similarly successful, the LP is unique and, for the most part, delightful. After Weekend, Booth went on to form and lead the longer-term and more mainstreamed Working Week. Statton returned to Wales and didn’t really resurface until the late ’80s, in partnership with Ian Devine from the obscure (but rated by Morrissey) early-’80s Manchester group Ludus. The bewitching team-up of these two soft-spoken conjurers produced the apotheosis of well-bred, thoughtful, slightly neurotic folk-pop. Devine writes sharply observed songs about his polite, slightly pampered, rather befuddled peers and the ordinary heartbreaks and tragedies that attend their daily lives. As voiced by Statton, the songs’ ironies register tenderly, while her intelligence whisks away any wistful treacle a lesser interpreter might bring to them. The Prince of Wales has very spare, guitar-based arrangements which give the simple melodies a nice lilt; the duo manages to keep things sounding light but not wispy.
Cardiffians adds New York downtowners Curtis Fowlkes, Roy Nathanson and Marc Ribot on, respectively, trombone, sax and guitar, and New Order’s Peter Hook joins on bass (presumably he approved of the duo’s much-softened cover of “Bizarre Love Triangle” on The Prince of Wales). Despite the expanded lineup, the sound is still remarkably spare, and all of the songs have a lingering quality that goes beyond the incisive lyrics and deceptively simple music. In light of Devine’s first-rate material here, the cover of Crystal Gayle’s “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” is cute but rather pointless, although it does allow the duo to demonstrate that sensitive, insightful treatment can’t salvage a fundamentally bad song. That misstep aside, Cardiffians is wonderful.
The gist of the Gist is Stuart Moxham, although Embrace the Herd involves assistance by Phil on three tracks and contributions from other friends, including Statton. Embrace the Herd is a lovely little record that makes good, careful use of unfancy electronics as well as guitar in fragile pop songs and atmospheric (but not all that vague) instrumentals that benefit from Moxham’s rare mix of roaming imagination and modest simplicity.