Album Review: A Little Orchestra – Clocks

[Vollwert Records; 2013]

A Little Orchestra are just that: a small collective of instrumentalists that have all the marks of a full ensemble, but are a few numbers short to make the composite. This doesn’t stop them from wanting to be big, though: their debut album, Clocks, is a humble yet ambitious record that stops upon full lives lived and harrowed love stories that span decades. In between it traverses musical landscapes, makes an ode to British cinema from times past, and sings the listener a lullaby. The variety in subject matter comes from the fact that Clocks is a guest-heavy album – but it would be more accurately described a collaborative effort. “People were just happy to write songs that they thought would work with an orchestra,” said violinist Natalie Hudson recently in an interview, and consequently A Little Orchestra come off like a versatile, adaptable group who sound like they’re capturing the original intended sound while injecting some of their own spirit – kind of like a British version of Icelandic mostly-instrumental group Amiina, if you will.

Despite the variety, Clocks still sounds consistent for the most part, apart from a couple of tracks towards the end which really shine. In fact, the second half of the album really sparkles, and it’s here they sound both absorbed and in control of the soundscapes they’re creating. “Train Tracks For Wheezy” is the band working with Derbyshire-trio Haiku Salut, and the version that appears on Clocks doesn’t differ too much from the one that stood out on Tricolore earlier this year. Some of the electronic tinkering is done away with here, and there’s a greater focus on it being an acoustic/live track. The cascading streaks of strings still remain one of the highlights to pick out, as does the moment when they all come together to sound like a carousel that’s perfectly capturing the early sound of múm and the most joyful moments from Sigur Rós’ Takk…. Following this is probably the album’s grandest highlight: “Footprints In Snow” is almost Disney-esque in scope, with Emma Winston singing of a long lost love like something from Brontë novel. It’s her voice that makes it, sounding like that of two people at the same time, gliding smoothly somewhere being Kate Bush and fully operatic while the musically it brings to mind Owen Pallett with its regal playfulness (namedropping Montreal helps, too).

One thing that this display of masterful music does do though is detract something from the tracks that precede it. For the most part, it’s a relative qualm to be cast aside when you take each track as its own piece, capturing its own little world, but Simon Love’s thin vocals on “Treacle, You Should Probably Go To Sleep” wears quickly, bringing to mind something a little too gentle and sweet that The Boy Least Likely To’s Jof Owen might have left on the cutting room floor. Darren Hayman imagines a girl from his past (“I think her name was Julia/ Pretty sure it was Julia/ Let’s say Julia,” he tries to recall, making for a Neil Hannon/Jens Lekman-like moment of pathetic humour), imaging a perfect film on top of that, picking out British film stars from decades past, as the band lull about with him, like drifting through memories that have been unvisited for a while.

It’s the orchestra that make this record, though. There’s something wonderfully homespun about the sound of Clocks that captures both a professional sheen and the sound of musicians recording in a living room. One might say it sounds “British” in the way it evokes images of sun and clouds against rolling hills (“Clocks, Part 2”) and the quietness of a slow-paced village at night (opening track “Clocks, Part 3,” which sounds peaceful at one moment before eluding to the sound of someone – let’s say a clockmaker for the hell of it – working away into the small hours) – but it’s more than that. Clocks is something of a tapestry, bringing together tales from different trains of thoughts and weaving them together to create a single piece. Like a tapestry, it’s got history embedded in it (“Josefina,” which asks “In your one hundred years, what you will see?”), some folklore (Gordon MacIntyre reels of a tale of a community full of characters in his pleasing Scottish drawl on “East Coast”), and something undeniably personal (closing track “Pightle 21,” which arguably stays slightly too long, but is still lovely). It’s the little things that make Clocks a pleasure, and A Little Orchestra prove that the small things in life are just as important and wonderful as everything else.