In the early 2000s, there was a brief trend of mellow, chill-out bands breaking into mainstream. Coldplay probably being the biggest financial success of them all, would set the standard for what people expected from groups of sulky, sensitive, dreamy-eyed, British blokes, playing sparkly lullabies while winning the hearts of soccer Moms everywhere. To capitalize one the success of bands like that, record labels began signing acoustic folk duos left and right in hopes that they could cash in on this new found sensitivity in mainstream pop. If it weren’t for that trend, I probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity to discover Turin Brakes.
Formed 1999 London, Turin Brakes were a mostly acoustic duo who gained local success with their full length debut album “The Optimist LP” in 2001. Being the American music market was being flooded with Coldplay songs, and other Coldplay clones, it seemed like the prime opportunity to come over and try their hand at American success.
Instead of simply re-creating their first album, Turin Brakes enlisted the help of Grammy Award winning producer Tony Hoffer (Beck, Air, The Thrills, to name a few) to help them create an actual album, not just a collection of songs. The result? 2003’s “Ether Song”. It would not only become the band’s crowning achievement, but one of my personal favorite underrated gems of the 2000s.
“Ether Song” is a strange album to describe to someone who hasn’t listened to it because it really doesn’t fall into any particular genre of music. It has the acoustic folk intimacy of their debut album, but later features jangly electric guitars, drum machines, and random backwards piano samples and soundscapes. There are thought provoking folk anthems such as “Average Man”, a song written about a bad review their local newspaper gave them earlier in their career, and “Long Distance” lamenting the hardships of falling in love with someone you know you really shouldn’t. Then there is floaty experimental pieces like the floaty “Falling Down” sounding like The Everly Brothers taking hallucinogenics, or the already mentioned “Painkiller”, a bright Britpop song with a dark narcissistic undertone that most mainstream listeners won’t even get.
What makes the album interesting is the way that it’s played. Producer Tony Hoffer, set up random computers, synths, and sample loaded keyboards in the studio while the duo played through their songs, so at any given moment, one could trigger a sample in real time, making something that’s normally cold and digital, intro something almost living and breathing as an acoustic guitar. This spontaneous technique gives the album a certain flair as if the band themselves are in the same sonic journey as the listener. At it’s core, it’s still an acoustic duo playing folk songs, but now surrounded by synthetic orchestra played by actual people. Isn’t that hard to picture? My favorite song on the record “Clear Blue Air” does the best job of describing what I mean. If you don’t like this song, you will not like the rest of “Ether Song”. Not all of the songs drift along in that breezey, sleepy pace though. “Little Brother” is a dark tale about suicide, and “Panic Attack” is an unsettling affair that fits it’s title perfectly. To be honest, the entire album has a darker theme than it lets on. The most gentle track on the record “Rain City” sounds like the distance cousin to Mazzy Star on the outside, but lyrically it could very well be about dying and becoming house dust. Even at it’s darkest, “Ether Song” still manages to be beautiful without being over pretentious or sappy.
Turin Brakes continued down this path for a few more albums, only to eventually go back to the stipped down nature of their early work on their most recent works. It one way it’s a shame that an album so unique and wonderful didn’t get more success here in the states, but at the same time, in a way, I’m glad they didn’t become the hit machine that Coldplay became, a band where with each release gets more cold and soulless. Almost to the point where it’s insulting. Turin Brakes are a fantastic band and “Ether Song” is by far, their most interesting, unique, and ambitious album to date. If you are a fan of that starry eyed Britpop sound, or a fan of the folk era stuff that Beck has been doing in the past ten years, I urge you to check out these guys, and this album is a mighty fine place to start.