Peter Ulrich Collaboration – Painted Caravan (Album Review)

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peterulrichalbumSome bands become known not due to corporate record label exposure but word-of-mouth reputation. From this platform, individual members gain kudos and experience to branch off into solo work. Here is a case of the parent band itself being a collaboration of individuals who have other projects, and as the years go by may be hit or miss but always evolving and of interest to their loyal fan base. For many, collectability of formats by one group has been replaced today by tracking down all the splinter off-shoots.

One example is Dead Can Dance, an Australian-English group formed in the early ’80s by Brendan Perry and Lisa Goddard. Moving to London, they released in 1984 a debut eponymous album of art rock that subsequently evolved into what has been described as “soundscapes of mesmerising grandeur and solemn beauty” with African and other ethnic polyrhythm, Gregorian chant, Eastern mantras, and Gaelic folk mixed with modern forms. A heady mix to be sure, but even when used subtly there is a sound that cannot be easily pigeon-holed, matched by their Symbolist art-like titles.

Involved on most of their debuts across all formats, was a 24 year-old self-taught drummer / percussionist, the Londoner Peter Ulrich. Although absent when they reformed in 2011, his work (including abandoned sessions) features on the Dead Can Dance box-set 1981-98 (2001) and Wake (2003). It may be surprising that such a well-respected band eludes the big labels, perhaps by choice, but also surprising that they have never really charted either in spite of a dozen albums and a recent world tour that sold out in most venues within a couple of hours. Their websites don’t have direct contact details either, which says something. For many years Ulrich worked with This Mortal Coil, both live and in the studio.

His first solo platter was a 12” in 1990 followed by a debut album Pathways and Dawns (1999), produced by Brendan Perry in Ireland (they also worked together on Piano Magic in 2009). Enter The Mysterium came out in 2005, acclaimed by such diverse folk as RocknReel and the Financial Times. Ulrich stayed with the same label, City Canyons in New York, for his latest project, The Peter Ulrich Collaboration’s The Painted Caravan (LC 12818), also released in the UK on Market Square Records (MSMCD 162). In past times, collaboration used to be negative (as in collaborated with the enemy) but the music world increasingly prefers this designation to the positive term co-operation. Lazy English or not, the results of this ever-widening trend can be positive indeed.

At first, as often happens, one might think that Peter Ulrich owes more than a shiny tuppence to Dead Can Dance, but there’s a more focused panorama that only hints at the ambiance associated with them. The drummer has added world-wide percussion to his armory in this new work, with different vocal style. We’re informed that Painted Caravan “is not intended to be merely a collection of tracks [but] takes you on a musical journey, a magic caravan exploring mysterious lands [through] cities, towns and villages populated with strange and wonderful folk. It is a magical mystery tour of an entirely different kind”.

The sleeve notes list an impressive cornucopia of influences, from Traffic, Pink Floyd and The Beatles, through Pentangle and Cocteau Twins, to contemporaries such as Arcade Fire, Fleet Foxes, Laura Marling, Beirut, and Mumford & Sons (misspelt). Ulrich hails from Middlesex and there is an odd confluence of another London suburb, as if Mumford and Sandy Denny meet here (Denny was born 500 yards from where Marcus Mumford grew up in South Wimbledon). One can add the echo too of In Gowan Ring, though others have briefly flirted with a similar style without staying with it or capturing the atmosphere here.

Mixing early and later folk, this is promoted not as a collection of tracks but a trip with various stop-offs along the way, a sort of pilgrimage to find not only what’s ‘out there’ but also what’s within. If it’s a “portrait of love” as the notes say, it also seeks to connect with both the personal and more general via places and sounds. Winds and leaves certainly blow around atmospherically, and ends with beach waves as if the journey found its goal waiting for it at the source.

The twelve ‘stop-overs’, just shy of an hour, opens with a traditional folk riff then mandolins for that old minstrel chestnut, the soldier’s tale. Rather than Chaucer or Blondel, In This Or Other Skin takes us across the globe for various stories. Bruce of Wallace against the redcoats, a warrior with Huang Xing (an eight-fingered revolutionary general before the First World War), a Mexican freedom-fighter, and WW2 pilot lament while naming their sweethearts (for a refrain of “hope I did you proud”) along the way. Brass and what sounds like a glockenspiel among the array of instruments conjure up place and moment from Celtic folk to Fleet Foxes. Sara Wendt’s voice, in keeping with her own solo work, and slow sitar-like sound are wedded for Pureland, with mystical background chant from a place of peace and understanding. The chorus nods to Dead Can Dance in delivery, but also the 4AD bands like Cocteau Twins over ethnic drums.

Tempo lifts for “The Secret Gardener’s” love at a distance. Almost psychedelic, it wouldn’t be out of place on a 60’s singles compilation. “Dark Lover,” the shortest song, tackles the perspective of a married woman’s interest in another (“Come to his heaven / A pleasant hell”). Mandolin and lilting-jig violin over scraping percussion add to the torn emotions of guilt and hope. Repeated piano motif underpins the fantasy “Starship (Golden Eye)” searching through the universe for a long-lost love. The longest track at seven minutes, if somewhat verbose (voiceless instrumental breaks are almost non-existent), conjures up what is inevitable for sweet (Floydish?) Emily but also what is worth holding onto in memory or dream. Flute is continued for “Children Of The Rain,”  lending a Traffic-like feel merged with Tull’s Ian Anderson at his acoustic guitar full-tilt.

“Drug Of War”showcases Ulrich’s percussion range with a Dead Can Dance-like delivery of serious vocals about one addicted to the adrenalin-rush of what is in reality nightmare. “Hanging Man,” a tale of jealous and eternal retribution, recalls a Steeleye Span trad-ballad tale with world-music percussion. Natives make an appearance for “Fanfare For The Lost Tribe” who have little left except belief in the Great Father and their legends. One could imagine the Celts or other pagans intoning this, with sad rhythm, round the ebbing fire. Electric guitar heralds “The Desert” with its Middle or even straight Eastern feel due to sitar-like swirls and hand-drums. The album closes as it started, with two longer visits to other shores. The future of centuries is evoked in “Love’s Skeleton,” another take on eternal love, with oboe, clarinet and horns in a jazz-less roll of the caravan. Mandolins leave us with the wind and female voice lost there. This would appeal to fans of Beirut, just as the last half of the album could almost be by that other unduly neglected, word-of-mouth band “In Gowan Ring.” “Tempest” closes and appropriately discusses the end of love looking out at the harbour in the “howling darkness” where “screams are sucked into a whisper [and] breath sucked away”, though in a Magna Carta rather than Tame Impala approach.

One might not entirely agree that the caravan journey crosses geographical space regarding musical styles, nor is there typically local motifs, but it does succeed in shifting across musical landscapes among inspiring historical figures, loves and friends new or old. There is a very impressive bunch of musicians (over a dozen) built around the co-writing core of Ulrich, Sara Wendt (Homer Erotic), David Steele (not the Fine Young Cannibals guy), Anne Husick (Band of Susans), and Trebor Lloyd (the producer at City Canyons), most of whom are well-known on the New York club circuit for what almost amounts to a collective of that vibrant scene. The instrumentation is equally impressive, and too long to list (there’s a full-page devoted to them), except to say there is a Yuet ch’in’ (Chinese moon guitar), didgeridoo, bullroarer, bagpipes, harp, Uilleann pipes, and enough world-wide percussion to fill an Incredible String Band’s swag-bag.

It may be surprising that there are no instrumentals, which would add local flavor, nevertheless lead vocals alternate between male-female in a rich tapestry of arrangements, a carousel of flickering images and scenes almost orchestral and movie-like in atmosphere. Less esoteric than the parent band, this CD should appeal both to fans of the original as a variant path and listeners seeking new exploration.

With lyrics, full information and colourful art-work (a gypsy wagon decorated with the songs’ subjects), this digi-pak is a superb object thanks to Market Square Records, evocative and perfectly suited to the contents. The music is memorable and very much of its time, like Mick Softley’s CBS albums and Mark Fry or Beau in their different, distinctive styles. Peter Ulrich is currently working on a new Painted Caravan album, and it will be interesting to see where it goes this time on its travels.

Special thanks to Marta Mazur for her assistance on this review…

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