No-Man – Speak

Recorded 1989-1991, remixed and released 1999

As the recording information makes clear, this album exists in two places at once, chronologically. The original recordings of all these songs were done in in the late 80s and early 90s, and released on cassette tapes that are no longer readily available. Then, almost ten years later, Wilson and Bowness dusted off all those old songs, remixed and rerecorded them, and released them in their current forms. Nevertheless, enough of the material on this record dates back to the early 90s that I’m comfortable covering it now.

Ambient music is a deceptively tricky beast. Done right it can be contemplative, expansive, even spiritual; something that’s able to crystallize broad swathes of emotion and experience into a few notes, washes, and textures. Done wrong it can be a dull and lifeless chore to sit through, made even worse by this feeling that we should be feeling something in this moment but aren’t. There’s not a lot of room between the two. Some of the tracks on Speak do manage to reach those sorts of heights, but as the album goes on, most of them collapse into a vaguely pink taffy mush.

For instance, the title track, first song off the album. The violin, the singing, and the bass (especially the bass), all lovely. Or Pink Moon, the Nick Drake cover, which switches out the acoustic guitar for something more meditative, and chops up and reverses the original’s piano bits and sends them gently floating down to earth, like snow. It’s also a minute longer, allowing the ambient swells to take center stage and nudge the song forward. Thing is, those are the only two songs I’d unambiguously recommend off this album.

Songs like Iris Murdoch Cut Me Down, though, don’t work quite as well. In that one, for instance, the instrumentation doesn’t really go anywhere, and the vocals sound like they came from a completely different song. Curtain Dream seems half-finished (ironic, considering that was one of the ones completely re-recorded in ‘99). The instrumentation in River Song is identical to the original, with the same ominously pastoral atmosphere, but the No-Man vocals don’t have the same punches and harmonies that Donovan’s do. The Ballet Beast is just kind of…there. Death and Dodgson’s Dreamchild doesn’t cohere at all.

I get what No-Man are going for here. This is supposed to be a record that documents small, quiet moments both positive and negative. And many of the songs do have moments that capture that sort of feeling. For instance: the harmonica in Heaven’s Break; the violin in French Free Terror Suspect, and Night Sky Sweet Earth (god bless Ben Coleman); and the piano in Riverrun and Life With Picasso. But those are all moments. Otherwise, much of Speak seems oddly half-finished, like they were a collection of sketches more than actual songs (which would have been fine if that’s how it was advertised), and pale especially in comparison to the more developed stuff they’d release later on.

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No-Man – Days in the Trees

July 1991

“A great philosopher once wrote, ‘NAUGHTY NAUGHTY, VERY NAUGHTY.’” —The Shamen, Ebeneezer Goode, 1992

I’d have said something about their cover of Donovan’s “Colours” from November 1990, which has been described as proto-trip-hop, but the only version available online is the Lovesighs version from 1992.

Anyway, Days in the Trees. One song, four mixes. Six if you were in Japan in January 1992. It’s gorgeous.

I was actually kind of surprised, given (here we go again) I’m not into No-Man, but the Mahler mix—which is the first version we hear and is the most conventionally song-like—is incredible. The standout bits here are the piano and Ben Coleman’s violin, lending some serious pastoral brightness that contrasts with and overpowers any artifice inherent in the song’s trip-hoppy skeleton. It’s all very pleasant and soothing, and then four minutes in the shuffling drumbeats drop out and the violin is given free rein to hurl itself toward the clear blue sky. The first time I listened to this I was coming off a really bad day, I was exhausted and stressed out, and I was amazed at how the song seemed to literally wash away all the crap I had been freighted with. It was like some much-needed therapy.

If you were in most of the world, next up would be the Ives mix. If you were in Japan, the Bach mix would be next. Either way, the song that comes on immediately afterward functions almost as an epilogue; a distillation of what made the Mahler mix great. Ives places the violin front and center and lets it cut loose right from the start. Bach may not have a Ben Coleman in it but it ramps up the song’s ambient qualities, resulting in ninety seconds of solid chill-out goodness.

The Arthur Askey mix, from the Japanese release, is another animal entirely. It’s still chilled-out the way the others were, to an extent, but Bowness now sings over some properly 90s bleeps and bloops and a nice crunchy drum machine and hang on a minute.

This was made by the Shamen? No, no, The. Shamen. The guys responsible for “Ebeneezer Goode,” that delightfully demented love letter to ecstasy, one of the most gloriously 1992 dance songs ever written. That Shamen?

Really?

You’re kidding.

I shouldn’t be too surprised. Wilson got Alex Freaking Lifeson and Robert Freaking Fripp to guest on Fear of a Blank Planet. He did a guest vocal on a Pendulum song, of all things. Since this was released in July 1991, I’m willing to bet this was done during that liminal period between the release of En-Tact in November 1990 and the first single off that album and their first big hit, Move Any Mountain, also in July 1991. And, most importantly, No-Man and the Shamen were labelmates. This collaboration makes sense, given where everyone was at the time. But No-Man and the Shamen are nevertheless two groups that I would never have imagined would ever come in contact with each other.

That said, I’m honestly not sure if the Shamen aesthetic works well with what No-Man were doing here. The end result definitely feels like one thing grafted uncomfortably onto another thing and is otherwise uninteresting.

Bartok is a bit better. The sitar, flute, and violin samples better enhance the song’s naturalistic feel, while the trancey bassline gives it both momentum and room to breathe. The last remix, Reich, sounds like it could have been on an ambient music album twenty years later. The instrumentation makes it sound like she’s telling the story while relaxing by the side of a river, under a beautiful canopy of cherry blossoms. It really sounds lovely. But right when she says “it was the first time I fell in love,” right when we expect the song to launch into something more breathtaking and expansive (Chicane’s So Far Out to Sea is instructive), that would communicate both the ecstasy and intimacy of falling in love for the first time…it stops. The song is over. It’s all very frustrating.

That said, the Mahler, Ives, and Bach mixes are all excellent and definitely worth your time.