Nathan Hall is something of a musical time traveller popping through the wormholes of popular music to bring back bits of this and that, safe in the knowledge that they will one day fit together in a song that makes people sit up and listen. My first reaction to his new four-track EP, The Volga Sturgeon Face was exactly that, and I was doubly pleased to hear Hall’s melodic sensibilities prioritized over everything else.
These four songs are among his best to date, uncluttered as they are by the diversionary sorties into incongruous sound effects that characterized much of his previous work with the Soft Hearted Scientists. Here, they adorn some well-crafted songs, but stay firmly in the musical context created by a cast of characters known collectively as The Sinister Locals.
I also like Halls’ way with words, and his beautifully obscure lyrics bundle along in the wonderfully hooky opener Everybody’s Burning Effigies. For all I know, it’s been at the bottom of drawer for ten years, but it sounds like a phenotypic example of Hall’s most satisfying songwriting. It also has what is known in the trade as a ‘killer chorus’.
On Song for the Flowers he celebrates plant succession in a choral-heavy tribute to the might of flower power. It also wryly looks forward to the end of nature-crushing civilization, and contains many of the veiled melodic references that he uses to mask whatever has inspired him to write his songs. Is that China Crisis percolating through, or is it just the faintest echo of ‘Have You Heard’? Perhaps, he simply asks himself, “What would George Martin have done here?”
Like a Setting Sun bounces gleefully along but the vocal is too deep in the mix to hear lyric on the chorus properly. “I look for you, were you looking for me?” pops through in a repetitive refrain that is more like a literary litany than a conventional lyric hook. The arrangement and the instrumentation recall Foxtrot-period Genesis at their very English best, while the strings create a delicate wash of pastoral imagery.
The meandering melody of Catacombs of Camden Town offers the clearest vocal to lyric balance, and so it should, for it seems to be Hall reminiscing about a catharsis of some kind. On this song, he demonstrates some of the compositional traits that make some of Peter Gabriel’s songs so interesting. It turns here and there into unexpected alleyways, but it’s always able to guide the listener back to the heart of the song.
I cannot say what the title of this EP might mean, other than it reads like the title of Dr. Who episode that didn’t make it past the production meeting. The most important thing to say about this rather bizarrely titled collection of tunes is that you will find yourself humming them six months from now, but you will be quite unable to remember whether you first heard them yesterday, or whether they are something from much further back in your memory.
These are also the songs that those who are familiar with the output of the Soft Hearted scientists have been waiting to hear from Nathan Hall. I just wish it had been an album-full of them.