Ellis Island Sound
Sometimes a change is as good as a rest. So it proved for Ellis Island Soundís Pete Astor and David Sheppard, whose records (together as EIS and in their various alternative guises which, either together or apart, include the Wisdom Of Harry, State River Widening, The Loft, Phelan Sheppard and so on) have generally been cooked up in London Town, slotted in amid a mass of life commitments and innumerable, intertwining creative projects. This time the duo determined to change the environment, turning their back on the capital and heading out to the country to cut what would become The Good Seed - the first full album proper from a combo whose almost decade-long existence has played out across a miscellany of EPs, mini-albums, singles and remixes.
(There has actually been one previous EIS longplayer ñ an eponymously titled and beautifully realised assemblage of the duoís singles and remixes that Heavenly released back in 2003)
With no subsequent label in place, EIS were free to pursue pastures new, unhampered by expectations of any kind. Having rented a tiny converted chapel in lonely countryside right on the Norfolk/Suffolk border (it satisfied the duoís key criteria of being ìdirt cheap and as far away from any neighbours as we could find,î) the pair packed a station wagon with supplies and every acoustic instrument they owned - everything from parlour guitars to ukuleles, harmoniums, dulcimers and goat skin drums ñ and, as the summer burned its last, headed east. They also took along a Fostex R-8 reel-to-reel, a microphone, several boxes of magnetic tape, a borrowed Casio SK8 mini sampler, a stylophone, a copy of Captain Beefheartís Trout Mask Replica and a pair of bicycles.
Installed in their country locale, overlooked by a field of cows and the occasional B52 bomber from a nearby US Air Force base, Astor and Sheppard quickly set about a disciplined but agreeable regime ñ cutting tracks after breakfast, in the afternoon and late into the night, interspersing the work with bike excursions to local village pubs, churchyards and abandoned Second World War gun emplacements. Duly enlivened, a body of brief, fragile but instantly involving pieces began rapidly emerging, with the duo playing all the instruments in the time honoured way, using no editing or ëdrop-insí. Thatís to say they played from start to finish on every instrument on every track, while tape rolled ñ unheard of in the age of computers, micro-editing, Pro-tools etc. Hence short tracks with no extended ëfillerí sections - no fat only lean. Once the songs - and an instantly evocative sound - were in place, EISís friend Josh Hillman (from the Willard Grant Experience) was invited to swing by and bow some violin, viola and saw. He picked up on the special atmosphere immediately and slotted right in.
The location and circumstance of the recording made palpable impact on the music in several ways. There is no bass drum on The Good Seed, for instance, simply because they couldnít fit one in the car! There were less pragmatic influences too. The unexpectedly star-spangled majesty of the rural East Anglian night was reflected in the awed atmospheres of Starlight Madrigal; while the hymnal Auction Of Promises was named after an intriguing poster spied outside a local church. Tracks like Angelís Way, Dark Lane and Cuckoo Hill all take inspiration from evocatively named nearby localities, while the rustic, beguiling but ever-so-slightly sinister The Villagers needs no further explanation.
An unfettered rural quality permeates much of the record; but like the vintage bombers droning low over the fields, there is retro-modernist technology hovering amid The Good Seedís analogue innocence. A pulsating Bentley Rhythm Ace drum machine lends a motorik underpinning to the melodious, life-affirming Building A Table and the wearily lovely The Waveney Waltz, while the initially pastoral Density Ratio (named after a crop rotation diagram) soon takes wing on a line up of stylophones, rhythm generators and overdriven harmoniums. The Casio SK-8, meanwhile, provides the murmuring undertow beneath Count The Carsí poignant reverie and the after-hours, free-Jazz mantras of Summoning The Pharaoh.
Remarkably, The Good Seedís twenty songs were completed in seven miraculous September days ñ testament to the productivity of concentrated music making and the instrumental versatility of Messrs Astor and Sheppard. A good deal more than a simple case of ëgetting their shit together in the country,í The Good Seed is a document of a time and a place, closer in many ways to location film-making than run-of-the-mill recording. One listen to a clutch of rough mixes was all it took to have Peacefrog (home of Jose Gonzalez and Nouvelle Vague) proffering contracts.
Human, affecting and packed to the gills with warm, timeless melody, The Good Seed draws on the spirit of Harmonia, Faust, The Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Boards Of Canada, Wim Wenders ë70s film soundtracks, various folk forms and much else besides - all of it moulded intuitively into something preternaturally English which ultimately sounds unlike any other record. It surely ranks among its indefatigable creatorsí most exceptional achievements to date.