When I was a small child my parents bought a copy of a children’s music LP called All Aboard. It had a whiff of a K-Tel compilation about it, containing songs like ‘Right Said Fred’ by Bernard Cribbins, ‘Ernie’ by Benny Hill and ‘Grandad’ by Clive Dunn. Side one of the album opened with a version of ‘The Laughing Policeman’ by Charles Penrose. I suspect because of mishandling on the part of my mischievous toddler fingers, that track was irreparably scratched, right at the point where the jocular copper of the song started laughing. That looped chuckling left an indelible mark on my childhood, running through the fear I felt as I watched the original version of IT, through TV shows with canner laughter and pretty much right up to the point I heard ‘I Stand On The Cable’ and ‘Dancing Without’ by Tears|Ov.
Tears|Ov is a trio of Lori E. Allen (vocals, samples, sequenced percussion, piano, synth, noise), Deborah Wale (vocals, percussion, tube, synth, noise, scratching, spoken word) and Katie Spafford (cello). Although the three performed together as part of Allen’s 2016 album for The Tapeworm, Tears Of The Material Vulture, the catalyst for this LP was a performance commission by artist Wolfgang Tillmans as part of the South Tanks series that ran alongside his 2017 Tate Modern retrospective. These are not the pieces that Allen / Wale / Spafford performed, exactly, as these are tracks formed of a collective after-hours improvisation process wherein each is a discrete moment unto itself. Triggered initially by Allen’s foundation loops, Wale and Spafford are then free to respond as they see fit, creating a feedback loop that allows Allen to alter and answer in return.
The eight pieces here are powerful, driven moments that sound perfectly composed rather than carrying the scratchy, inchoate gestures that one normally associates with freeform music. The tracks mentioned earlier – ‘I Stand On The Cable’ and ‘Dancing Without’ – possess a rich, interwoven tapestry of sonic events, glued together as tight layers (pulsing electronics, clipped instructions reminiscent of ‘Revolution #9’, and that incessant, troubling laughter – which collapses into distress on the latter track). If these found sound layers appear skittish and randomised, Spafford’s cello and Wade’s spoken word, when placed next to Allen’s finely-wrought electronics on moments like ‘Trapdoor Ant’ provide a stentorian focal point to proceedings, even if they are almost immediately sliced through with brief snatches of noisy intervention.
On the whole, this is a dark and brooding album befitting of both its title and the two tracks with the same name that bookend the LP. Surprising, then, to find two tracks that are, at least in part, completely at odds with the prevailing tone of A Hopeless Place. ‘Overstimulated Arcade Rat’ carries a sci-fi edge reminiscent of Don Dorsey’s soundtracks for Disney attractions at Epcot, full of fizzing futuristic electronic energy and perverse optimism, while ‘Family Feudal’ begins with genuinely laugh-out-loud faux pas culled from shows like Family Fortunes, before being taken into a mournful conclusion by Spafford’s cello, angry loops and an oddly unsettling segue into Satie.
Taken as a whole, A Hopeless Place leaves an uncertain, unresolved impression on the listener. There are difficult themes at work here, if you search them out, hiding beneath the splotches of sonic colour that dominate the trio’s music. How you elect to interpret those, just as with any work of art, in whatever discipline, is entirely up to you. You can be horrified, despondent, amused, ignorant or – if you perhaps hear the echo of a terror that dominated your early years – deeply terrified all over again.
A Hopeless Place by Tears|Ov is released November 1 2019 by The Wormhole.
Words: Mat Smith
(c) 2019 Further.