Just the other day I was lamenting the passing of Broadcast, the Warp Records outfit that spun haunting pop music out of vintage analog electronics, icy vocals, and strange cinematic experiments. So I consider it a delightful synchronicity when I checked in with the Home Assembly Music label’s (The Declining Winter, The Green Kingdom) latest happenings, and saw Broadcast mentioned as a reference point for Oh!, the latest long player from Sheffield’s The Big Eyes Family Players.
Originally formed in 1999 as a solo project for multi-instrumentalist James Green, The Big Eyes Family Players have evolved into something of a revolving door collaboration that has featured the likes of Rachel Grimes (Rachel’s) and Jeremy Barnes (A Hawk and A Hacksaw). Despite their longevity, though, the group remained unknown to me until Oh! — and yes, Broadcast is an immediate point of comparison.
This is largely due to Heather Ditch’s voice, which possesses the same otherworldly, detached-yet-beguiling nature that Trish Keenan once had (especially when it’s wrapped in reverb). But musically, Oh! is less… eccentric. I’d daresay it’s more ballad-oriented and even folk-y by comparison (which makes sense given the group’s previous releases). There are the occasional “weird” musical moments (e.g., the spectral backdrop on “Ghosts,” the warped music box tinklings on “Witch Prickers Dream,” “Reeves’ Lament”’s synth noodlings), but the band refrains from going too far down that particular path.
There’s a pervasive chill to Oh!’s songs, even on “Desert Queen” with its soulful Rhodes-like piano riff. Oh! is foreboding at times, as if Green et al. are testing you to see if you’re willing to sit down and make it through; there are lovely moments, but you need to be willing to become a tad bit uneasy every now and then to experience them. Case in point: “Joyce” with its shifting dynamics between slowcore and a more cinematic chorus. (Oh, and the lyrics, which were inspired by the tragic story of Joyce Vincent, who went undiscovered for three years after she died in her London flat.)
But I would never say Oh! is unrewarding for the patient listener. And sometimes, the band just graces the listener with straightforward beauty. On “Across the Waves,” the album’s gentlest and loveliest moment, Reeve’s guitar shimmers and drummer Guy Whitaker taps out a gentle rhythm; meanwhile, Ditch’s voice leans heavily towards the “beguiling” end of her vocal spectrum. Later in the album, the band performs a lovely, swirling cover of Lal Waterson’s “Song for Thirza” that’s befitting the lyrics’ tale of childhood memories and regret.
At “Across the Waves”’s end, Ditch sings, “There is calm, there is hope, there is light.” Now maybe it was just the crappy day I’d had up until the moment I heard “Across the Waves” for the first time, but in that moment, the band’s hauntological sound was a comfort. I always take that as a sign that I need to pay more attention to the artist in question. I have yet to regret that decision with The Big Eyes Family Players.