Bill Ryder-Jones is the ex-lead guitarist for neo-psychedelic Brit-rockers, The Coral. His debut solo album, If…, is a soundtrack to an imaginary adaptation of Italo Calvino’s po-mo masterpiece, If on a winter’s night a traveler…
There are two ways to listen to If…. The first and most obvious is to consider the concept (Calvino’s novel) with regards to the sound. Frankly, I don’t recommend this method. The most salient difference between Calvino’s If… and that of Ryder-Jones is a sense of humor; namely, Calvino’s is a nonesuch while Ryder-Jones has none. The book is playful, witty, and often LOL funny (I’d love to hear the Italian master’s opinion on today’s internet slang), but this album mopes along with one dour, sad-sack track after another. On the first listen I thought, “Somebody get this blue Bill an umbrella and a tasty cookie so he’ll lighten up.” But then, Calvino can be read a million different ways. So even if I don’t necessarily like Ryder-Jones’s reading, there’s no reason to throw out his unhappy music.
Let’s throw out Calvino instead and just listen.
The opening title track is a non-overture. Each song is meant to represent a separate inspiration that is never quite fully realized (like the book). In this way, the beginning places us in medias res, but it also acts as a cogent introduction for what’s to come. The instrumentation throughout is tight and consistent: strings and percussion (Liverpool Philharmonic), piano, and later vocals, guitars, and the occasional accordion for body and bounce. Somehow the first four tracks float on in six-eight time without overstaying their static stylistic welcome. “The Reader” is a clunky but not ineffectual attempt at contrapuntal writing. “Leaning” is an unsettling haunter with its overly sustained pedal tones, twee Swedish vocals, and that accordion that never sounds quite in tune. “By the Church of Appolonia” is a nod to Ennio Morricone (no film score, fake or otherwise, is complete without a nod to that old Italian).
Then we get a traditional song, “Le Grand Desordre,” and at not a moment too soon. It introduces an acoustic guitar and four-four time. If I hear the phrase “between her thighs” in a song ever again, it’ll be too soon. Gross. This one’s a winner otherwise, particularly in the context of the track order. Next is a quasi-rocker called “Enlace,” which bears a strange kinship to the machismo television music of American ’80s crime dramas. In other words, this music has a mustache. Then the inexplicable electric guitars at 4:40. In an interview with The Guardian, Ryder-Jones admits this section sounds “silly.” I don’t disagree, but I don’t dislike it either. “Intersect” is next, and its one of the composer’s favorites; I find it melodically perfunctory, and the climax feels ham-fisted. It would be okay for a lesser writer, but our man has already outperformed this track earlier on.
Then there’s “The Flowers,” which bears an unfortunate resemblance to “Lick My Love Pump,” that brilliant Christopher Guest gag from This is Spinal Tap. Perhaps I’m being a bit too hard on Ryder-Jones’s sadness, but the sentimentality here drips like syrup.
But he returns to good form with “Give Me a Name,” the strongest track on the album. Vaguely reminiscent of Zeppelin’s “No Quarter,” this jam has all the moodiness of a Nine Inch Nails record without the feeling of taking a greasy load to the face. Nice work. And the understated loveliness of the final track, “Some Absolute End,” works just fine. The story never really ends… Yeah, I’ll buy it.
So I don’t currently feel the urge to have a pint with Bill Ryder-Jones—he seems like the type to spend an inordinate amount of time staring wistfully into the foggy distance. He’s not what I’d call a sublime melodist, but his chops for orchestration are sound and his knowledge of the film music repertory is adequate. There is one remarkable strength in his debut, though: track sequencing. If… plays like an album, the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. To extract a single moment would do an injustice to an otherwise careful listen. So the young British composer has a mind for the big picture, and that’s a rare, Beethovenian talent these days. I eagerly wait to see how he develops in the coming projects.
Hesiod James is a Nashville sideman. He plays bass.