Although Luke Sutherland’s Bows project is often lumped into the downtempo/trip-hop genre, I often find it very hard to compare Bows’ music with that of the genre’s more famous proponents. Sure, Bows shares some surface level similarities — sensual female vocals, jazzy atmospherics, hip-hop-derived rhythms — but dig deeper, and you’ll find that Bows’ music definitely stands on its own and stands out amongst its peers.
I suppose I could delve into each subtle difference, note each disparity down to the nth degree of difference — for example, the prominence of Sutherland’s breathy vocals as a counterpoint to the female vocals — but if I had to sum it up, the difference is mainly one of attitude. Downtempo seems primarily concerned with conjuring up an uber-stylish noir attitude, with being the perfect soundtrack music for all manners of activity that are dark, gritty, and suave (espianoge, world-class criminal capers, etc). Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you, but it does get a little tedious after hearing the umpteenth band hit on the same sounds, themes, and atmospheres.
Bows’ music certainly has plenty of melancholy and introspection in it but the mood always feels completely organic, rather than theatrical and melodramatic. Some of this likely stems from Sutherland’s work as a critically-acclaimed author — he knows how to create a convincing voice in his music without stooping to genre cliches or getting all broody and gritty.
And although Bows’ music is certainly melancholy, there’s a considerable lightness to it that oftentimes flies in the face of genre cliches. It’s in the music, such as the orchestral flourishes and glissandoes, or the layers of shimmering, coruscating guitars that form most of the album’s lush, evocative timbre. And it’s in the lyrics, which are both incredibly literary, imaginative, and oftentimes downright playful.
All of this was evident on Bows’ first full-length, Blush, but it seems even moreso on Cassidy. As lovely as Blush was — and believe me, it’s quite lovely — Cassidy is an even richer album in many ways, and even more joyous and celebratory.
“Luftsang” opens with Sutherland’s shimmering guitars creating a kaleidoscopic backdrop; every time I hear them, I can’t help but think of fresh spring days, days where the sunlight streams through wind-rustled leaves, creating shimmering pools of light and shadow dancing all over the surface of everything (and if that description doesn’t tell you how far Bows strays from the downtempo cliches, nothing will). Meanwhile vocalist Signe Hoirup Wille-Jorgensen drifts, Björk-like, through the sound, her voice seemingly lost in rapture.
Adding to the lightness and, dare I say, fun of it all, the drums stumble halfway through the song, as if drummer Howard Monk (yes, a real drummer, no programming here, thank you very much) dropped a stick and is fumbling around, trying to pick it off the floor without losing too much of the tempo. Rather than distract, it actually adds to the frivolity, a sly little wink from Sutherland and Co. to keep you on your toes.
“Cuban Welterweight Rumbles Hidden Hitmen” is one of the slower tracks on the album, with Morricone-esque guitar trails interweaving with Sutherland and Wille-Jorgensen’s hushed voices, telling the story of a Cuban boxer on the run after refusing to throw a fight. It’s a somewhat odd subject matter, but the song’s lethargic pace makes it work, turning it into an almost romantic tale by the end.
Another fanciful tale takes place during “Ali 4 Onasiss,” which imagines a romantic rendez-vous between two people curiously named Ali and Onassis (presumably after the boxer and JFK’s widow — at one point, Ali even says “Mrs. President you floor me”). Whoever these characters are, Sutherland, in his breathy voice, captures the uncertainty and excitement of such a liaison — “Something inside of me laid bare/First date, out of sight/Starsigns/This is what it’s meant to be like… All you are is everything to me.” As if it add to the lovers’ rapture, the song ends with growing waves of guitars and strings, becoming heavier and more insistent, and the final sound is an ecstatic lovers’ sigh.
This sense of ecstasy carries on throughout much of the album, often making for a delirious listen. “Uniroyal” flits and floats about over stuttering rhythms and ever-increasing orchestral accouterments — plucked strings, bells, dancing chimes — and enough gauzy guitars to make Kevin Shields swoon. The whole song culminates in a gorgeous, glowing swirl of sound — ghostly voices, droning guitars, little bells and toybox glitter, etc. Think of any Sigur Rós denouement, with Sutherland’s breathy voice in place of Jonsi’s angelic falsetto.
“DJ” is the album’s most delirious track, an unabashed love song by Sutherland in which he exclaims “You’re all I need… You’re everything to me/You’re open skies and butterflies/You’re zero gravity.” Beyond the words, the music absolutely borders on the ecstatic, becoming a drunken and exhilirating mixture of jungle beats stumbling all over eachother, swaying guitars, synth flourishes, flutes, and layers of Sutherland’s voice all swirling amongst eachother.
I keep coming back, again and again, to Sutherland’s gorgeous guitarwork. It has much more in common with the music of the shoegazers than, say, the sharp, knife-like riffs of Portishead’s Adrian Utley, which seem better-suited to backalley knife fights than the summery, pastoral vistas conjured up by Bows’ music.
As I mentioned before, Sutherland’s guitars shimmer, almost jewel-like, giving each song in which they appear a rich, yet very delicate sound. On “Blue Steeples,” layer upon layer of guitar crash upon the song like ocean tides, each one louder, bigger, and more lovely than the last. Listening to the song, one can’t help but want to just fall back into the sound, let it wash over them, and let it sweep them away. The album’s hidden closing track is a dreamlike piece of formless guitar fragments that just seem to hang there, suspended like the mobile of blue crystals that features so prominently in Kiewslowski’s Three Colours: Blue and which cast such beautiful light across Juliette Binoche’s face.
I don’t conclude with a comparison to a Kieslowski film simply to gain some additional fanboy cred, but because a cinematic reference is very appropriate, even a reference to a cinematic master. Sure, downtempo might be one of the more filmic of music genres out there, but Bows’ music is cinematic for a different reason other than constant references to the scores of John Barry, Peter Thomas, etc. Due to Sutherland’s gorgeous arrangements, there’s an expansiveness to Bows’ music that it makes seem better suited to the silver screen than on a simple stereo. And thanks to his lyrics and the interplay between the vocalists, a drama to it that is due to the stories and emotions contained within the songs, and not simply because of the samples, beats, or string orchestras they employ.