In Merioneth, the wind lives and wails,
On from hill to lonely hill:
Down the loud, triumphant gales,
A spirit cries Be strong! and cries Be still!
– Lionel Pigot Johnson, ‘Dead’
Call it rather lent on permanent loan. For Welcome, stranger, to this place the Wraiths have delivered – on top of This is Charing Cross – another albumsworth of predominantly nineteenth century poetry just about perfectly set to music of their own making. Mog and Jon really do pull out all the stops to perform these poems, not simply via vocal delivery but through spot-on accompaniment and an all-round thoroughness of approach. Sometimes managing to combine earthiness with a grim jauntiness – Beddoes’ ‘The drowned and the shipwrecked’ and Tennyson’s ‘Dark house’ – at other times making an unlikely pairing of ululation and the ethereal – ‘Merioneth’, ‘Above the dock’, Dickinson’s ‘Wild nights’ – the end results always engage with both poem and listener.
There’s nothing radically different about this second set, but nor did there need to be. Keats’ ‘Casket of my soul’ is uniquely Gravenhurst-esque musically (you can imagine Nick Talbot getting his own morbid teeth stuck into this one), but otherwise they continue to elaborate musical settings which though grounded in guitar pop have something more – something other – about them. A firmness of purpose, a dramatic and melodic kick, and an intuitive feel for the poems, nowhere better demonstrated than on another Tennyson, ‘Touch of a vanished hand’, which retains Mog’s first-time-of-asking improvisation over Jon’s foot-stomping music. In so doing they reanimate Victorian poetic sensibilities – in these stanzas there’s a lot of death and loss, a lot of wind and water, but life too, in its extremities – and make you want to jump into the poetry both with and without their guiding musical hand.
Presumably the Wraiths are still majoring on nineteenth century poetry for rights reasons, but I start to wonder what they might do with late twentieth and twenty-first century poetry – perhaps even working with a living poet – and where that might take the music. And I wonder whether they do requests. There’s Rilke or Anna Akhmatova – admittedly with the additional complication of translation – or Sharon Olds and Paul Farley poems that I’m sure they’d do wonders with.
Damn – you write a piece banging on about how surprisingly little poetry is set to pop music, then along comes a whole album full of the stuff. These are the Wraiths, and they hail from – where else? – Bristol.
Theirs is just about the perfect moniker, given the poetry the duo set on This is Charing Cross. Ford Maddox Ford’s title poem has the bereaved widows of First World War soldiers gathering at the station for trains which will never disgorge their husbands. The women’s faces, and those of their children, are dead. Living ghosts. All of the poems the Wraiths set seem carefully chosen for their resonance, their timeless and lyrical beauty, and capture moments – ghosts of moments – that but for poets would go unrecorded, uncelebrated. They set them to music which is decidedly more corporeal, more substantial, Elizabethan folk blended with the kind of acoustic instrumentation and guitar play that might have graced work at the literate end of eighties and nineties indie-pop (I wouldn’t be surprised if Mog Fry and Jon Hunt turned out to have form in this respect). It’s a winning combination, as a listen to ‘The curlews’ on their MySpace site will bear out.
Mog comes across as a warmer Trish Keenan, trading the latter’s icy distinction for a far greater range, so that she’ll sing ‘The junk of many pearls’ with appropriate aquamarine ethereality and then go to town belting out ‘Movers and shakers of the world’ (Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s ‘Ode’). And having been captivated initially by these more immediate songs, I’ve found myself returning to the softer settings. ‘The darkness’ (D.H. Lawrence’s ‘At the window’) is as gently evocative of weather, season and mood as, say, ‘Saturday’ by the Clientele. The Wraiths have the same lightness of touch and This is Charing Cross bears repeated listening.
Thanks are once again due to Tim, who increasingly seems to be this blog’s eyes and ears on the ground. I really should get out more, as the Wraiths prove.