The music of The Cinematic Orchestra has always been emotional, but to an extent that’s partly been because it sounds like a soundtrack to a film you’ve never seen (well, unless it’s Man With The Movie Camera, but I digress). You’re grafting on that resonance yourself as the evocative arrangements plant scenes in your mind. But in the case of Ma Fleur, the emotion is really at the centre of the record. And that’s plainly stated with the opening track, to Build a Home, where a naked piano and unbelievably fragile and beautiful vocal from new collaborator Patrick Watson flickers like candlelight as your ears adjust to the gloom.
“Out in the garden where we planted the seeds, there is a tree that’s as old as me”, sings Watson with the deepest melancholy. Ma Fleur is an album both inspired by, and reflecting upon, the passage of time. And yet it’s not necessarily just a question of looking back all misty-eyed; it’s also a musical analysis of space and time, and our place as individuals within it as we pass through. The second track, Familiar Ground, is build around just four sung words, with the revered Fontella Bass repeating; “How near? How far?” Jason Swinscoe’s Cinematic Orchestra (We interviewed Jason about Ma Fleur recently) have always been good at doing much with little, and this latest collection seems to take that philosophy even further. And coming from Fontella, who is sadly now in poor health, the weight and wisdom added to those four short words is huge. But rather than becoming grating, this simplicity is what allows the music to envelop you, as it slowly rubs away at the hard edges, Fontella’s self-analysis becoming your own as time and space dissipate around you.
Child Song, as you might expect, is at a higher tempo, and this time the female vocal duet speaks no words at all and just harmonises. There’s an innocent positivity about the track, and with the feelings unexpressed by lyrics, it’s about as close as you can get to the musical equivalent of a happy childhood. The precise yet inexplicably loose jazz drumming of Luke Flowers is also the star here, well, as it has been since he joined the group for the Every Day album.
Ma Fleur definitely has a different feel to the other albums, and it’s possible that some fans of earlier material will find the album too sparse in places. It’s not necessarily a criticism; this is clearly the journey that Swinscoe wanted to take, but the fact is that you’ll notice it. Take Music Box, for example, which is essentially an acoustic guitar solo, albeit it augmented by a vocal and some instrumentation later on. Channel 1 Suite this is not. Perhaps it’s telling then that the central track, As The Stars Fall, feels most like the Cinematic Orchestra we fell in love with all those years ago. A fragmented guitar and the plummiest of double bass pizzicato is joined by incessant jazz drumming at pace. Strings swirl in between the 2nd and 3rd minute and suddenly you’re back in the cinematic heaven you remember.
Fontella Bass returns for Breathe, which is perhaps the album highlight in terms or marrying a vocal performance to lyrics and music. It’s clearly a song about dying, using the sea as a metaphor for returning to the earth. And with that austere, yet soft warm voice finding its way through the beautiful arrangement, it’s hard to deny that the Cinematics are operating on a higher level in terms of marrying sound to semantics.
To finish, Patrick Watson reprises a short version of To Build a Home in That Home, thus reflecting back on the reflection and bringing Ma Fleur full circle. The coda is a song called Time and Space, and features Lou Rhodes of Lamb fame. “Born of love, or born of hate, each one is heaven sent to human fate. Dream…little girl dream. Dream…little boy dream”, sings Lou over an arrangement so slow it threatens to grind to a halt. Yet this lullaby somehow sustains itself and halfway through its near nine minutes, builds into another classic Cinematic Orchestra instrumental. The theme is one generation becoming the next in an endless cycle, and the time and space found between each note of the weightless piano solo demonstrates how their sound is the perfect vehicle to represent all this.
Energetic it may not be in terms of pace and weight, but Ma Fleur is an engaging record because of the thought, memory and emotion that’s gone into each calculated note. It might not have you tapping your foot too much, but it will have you tapping into some long lost memories. Or perhaps they’re visions of the future; once The Cinematic Orchestra overtake you it’s hard to tell…
The Cinematic Orchestra
Ma Fleur (2007)
Record Label: Ninja Tune