We should all be grateful that people are learning how to make musical records again, grown-up, beautiful pop records, full of melody and ache, sensitivity and attention. Within the last year we've seen Brendan Benson, Rufus Wainwright, Departure Lounge and the Czars; releases full of sonic adventure that rely on craft and imagination instead of pure volume.
This is Ed Harcourt's first release in the States after spending the last year charming the knickers off most of Europe. "Here Be Monsters" has one of the prettiest opening moments in pop music. "Spider has eight legs, you know," Harcourt whispers in your ear, supported by acoustic guitar and music box vibes, "Spins its web, the patterns flow." By the time the organ and clanging electric guitar come in, Harcourt has set out his stall as a sweet pop melancholic with an adventurous sense of arrangement and nursery-rhyme charm.
And it's a brave album to make. The melody-led songcraft and intelligent romanticism range from show tune camp to the naked menace of bare bowed basses and growling, roomy organs. Beautifully arranged muted trumpets and pianos and lovingly recorded vocals are allowed the space to breathe. At 23, Harcourt is an accomplished polymusical wunderkind, but his greatest achievement has been assembling this beautiful band where everyone knows when to shut up. Amazing. At times it's reminiscent of Mercury Rev's epic "Deserters' Songs"' gentle sadness, and includes a spot of Dave Fridmann vocals on the charming "Birds Fly Backwards." Other moments borrow elegantly from Bacharach or Joplin, while "Beneath the Heart of Darkness" slowly climbs the high dive to plunge into sonic chaos.
Music should be allowed to be musical once in a while, and pop music owes it to itself to be ambitious, or it deserves whatever it gets. "Let's make the big time/aiming to climb high." Oh, yes.