This article originally ran in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) on Thursday December 13, 2012.
Aidan Moffat and Bill Wells aren’t men to rest upon their laurels.
The cult-pop duo won this year’s inaugural Scottish Album of the Year Award for their sublime collaboration, Everything’s Getting Older, but the Falkirk-bred, Glasgow-based luminaries have also been honing separate endeavours, and these will bear intoxicating fruit in the coming weeks. Moffat has resurrected his solo L. Pierre guise for a hypnotic long-player, The Island Come True, and Wells has issued a glorious Christmas Album with The National Jazz Trio of Scotland.
As befits two of Scotland’s most exceptional artists, neither offering is run-of-the-mill. Wells’ NJTOS is not a jazz band, nor a trio, but rather a vintage pop quintet starring members of Francois and the Atlas Mountains and Golden Grrrls; while Moffat’s L. Pierre alter-ego sees the former Arab Strap front-man, and one of our most vital wordsmiths, converse via eerie and exquisite instrumentals.
Does Moffat explore different sentiments in his non-verbal work? “I think it’s fundamentally the same sort of artistic expression from my point of view – I know where it comes from and what it means,” he says of his aural narratives, constructed from samples and found sounds. “But its function is entirely different. Usually, if I write a song, I’m trying to tell a story and there’s a definite goal, but with this record, it’s much less clear. It’s up to the listener how they use it.”
The Island Come True, L. Pierre’s fourth album, erects the odd shadowy signpost along the way. The album name references Peter Pan (and by extension, that book’s celebration of the imagination), while its song titles nod to Buddhism, Macbeth and neon-horror The Fog. “The titles are self-explanatory, or give pointers, rather than having poetic depth,” Moffat says. “But I think it’s nice to give someone an idea, and they can work it out for themselves.”
Another distinction between L. Pierre’s instrumentals and Moffat’s vocal work is the concept of record as permanent artefact. “When you record a song it’s often not the definitive version, because you know it’s going to change when you play it live,” he says – a paradox he explored in detail with art-pop wizards FOUND, for this year’s brilliant audience/environment-influenced #UNRAVEL. “But this L. Pierre album is intended to be listened to alone, at home. It’s not a communal experience, it’s not something that requires an audience – it’s supposed to be a solitary, solid thing. There’s no room for performance in that, I don’t think.”
Yet the record ebbs and flows with (sometimes otherworldly) life: crashing waves; a child’s laugh; a sense of ancestry in analogue crackle. “There’s something intrinsically sad about tape hiss; there’s something very beautiful in scratches,” says Moffat. “It’s not about nostalgia, it’s about history – the music sounds like it’s had experience, it sounds like it’s been passed along, and by the very nature of that, it sounds like it has more emotional depth – to me, anyway.”
Such notions of time passing resonate with Everything’s Getting Older’s themes of birth, love and death. “I never really thought about that, but then everything I do is about what’s happening in the present,” Moffat offers. “That’s how the songs on Everything’s Getting Older came about – even though I was warned that you can’t really write songs about getting old, because no-one wants to hear them,” he deadpans.
Well, we did. Wells and Moffat’s collaboration is unprecedented in the Scottish canon and continues to find new devotees. Wells nods in modest agreement. “It does seem to makes a big impression on people – you feel that it’s maybe something special,” he offers.
The same could be said for the National Jazz Trio of Scotland’s Christmas Album which, true to Wells form, is surprising, melancholy and beautiful. “I hope it’s uplifting – I do think the whole Christmas thing should have a bit of glitter and tinsel,” Wells reflects, “but I also think most people feel that it’s a very mixed time. Once you’ve got beyond the stage of childhood, it’s bound to have a mix of emotions.”
The idea for a Yule-pop anthology grew from Bill Wells’ Black Christmas, held at Stirling Tolbooth in 2010. It features bittersweet and haunting – yet still-familiar – takes on Winter Wonderland, Good King Wenceslas, We Three Kings and more. How did Wells select the songs? Are there particular carols he holds dear? “Well, I completely hate Jingle Bells, so that was quite a good point to start off with,” he laughs heartily. “That’s why I’ve changed it so much, you know?”
The album is exotic and era-hopping, embracing indie, avant-garde, frosted chanson, 60s pop – even jazz. “Bizarrely enough, there was going to be quite a lot of jazz on the record,” Wells remarks. “I actually had to take some jazz out of it – my piano playing got a bit much. It’s still there in the chords of course – there’s always going to be a jazz influence – but I had to pull it back. It felt like there was too much information in there. It felt too busy.”
This deceptive simplicity underscores Wells’ enduring charm: he allies subtle, compassionate arrangements with stunning melodic intuition. It’s in the yearning cadence of NJTOS’ Jingle Bells and the emotional fabric of Everything’s Getting Older. It’s in the gentle swoon of The Power (and The Glory) of Love – a prescient medley he and Moffat recorded long before Gabrielle Aplin, via John Lewis, made an inferior version this week’s number one. John Lewis may never be undersold, but Moffat and Wells are never outshone.
Everything’s Getting Older (Chemikal Underground) is out now. The National Jazz Trio of Scotland’s Christmas Album (Karaoke Kalk) is out now. The Island Come True (Melodic) is out in January but digitally available now.
The Indie Visionary Who’s Preparing for a Black Christmas (Bill Wells i/v, The Herald, Dec 2010)
Stories For The Record (Aidan Moffat and FOUND i/v on #UNRAVEL, The Herald, April 2012)
A Quietus Field Trip: UFO Spotting in the Bonnybridge Triangle with Aidan Moffat
Now For a New Kind of Freedom (Aidan Moffat i/v, The Herald, March 2011)
2011: A Vintage Year for the Scottish Album (The Herald, Dec 2011)