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"The Creatures in the Garden of Lady Walton"

Clogs – The Creatures in the Garden of Lady Walton
04 June 2010, 11:00 Written by Matt Poacher
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Ischia is an island in the Bay of Naples in the Tyrrhenian Sea. It’s been inhabited by all sorts – Greeks, Syrausansa, Romans, Turks – mostly drawn by the impregnable geography, plus the hot springs, and the throb of the island’s tropical greenery. William Walton came to Ischia in 1946, pulled by the same magic, and bought the Villa La Mortella in the west of island and immediately set about planting a labyrinthine garden. When he died in 1983 his wife Susana took charge of the by now dense and burgeoning vegetation and opened it to the public. Padma Newsome, composer, violinist and, for now, Clogs’ de facto auteur, spent some time in the garden in 2005 – as part of a residence funded by the Fromm Foundation – and was enchanted/spooked enough by what he saw to put together The Creatures in the Garden of Lady Walton. It’s the first Clogs record for five years and whether there is some dark channelling afoot, or just a natural progression, it’s something of a departure for them, and something of triumph.

The most obvious change on the record is the presence of so much vocal interplay – from Shara Worden’s strange, piercing falsetto to Mat Berninger’s gravel tones. They’ve had whispered passages before now (‘Light me a lantern/ In your lighthouse, my keeper’), but nothing so obviously song-like. Indeed ‘Last Song’ is pretty much as conventional as they’ve ever sounded. It’s a gorgeous track though, given that extra power by Berninger’s Lowell-referencing gravity. The other major surprise is how baroque and, yes, pretty it sounds – there’s the typical Rechian minimalist rhythms, the meshed undertow of strings, various guitars and Rachel Elliot’s stately bassoon, but the surface flits and darts, with flourishes dragging the ear left and right. And even though the record explicitly references a meditation on the natural world, you still find yourself reaching for warm and flighty adjectives.

That the album has taken some five years to appear is due to the bands set-up: an array of talents built around the core four of Padma Newsome, Bryce Dessner, Thomas Kozumplik and Rachel Elliot, with the latter three resident in the States and Newsome in a remote corner of Victoria in Australia. They record where, and when they can; and when their collaborators can manage it. Which should make for something of a mess – but not a bit of it. Given that it was composed as a suite, and given the obvious and disgusting amount of talent on display, it’s a very complete record. It’s tempting to focus on the Berninger track just because it feels like a breakout track, but in truth the highlights are the single Newsome-sung track ‘Red Seas’ and those sung by the astonishing Worden: ‘On the Edge’ ‘Adages of Cleansing’ and ‘The Owl of Love’. The Padme song is a signature Clogs track with that tell-tale lilt provided by Kozumplik’s rolling rhythms, the latter two are chamber pieces flung heavenwards by Worden’s voice. ‘The Owl of Love’ would be ridiculous if it weren’t so breathtaking – ‘I am the owl/the owl of love/by night I suck it in/I suck it in/by the day/start with morn/I breathe it out again’. One wonders what happened in the garden…

As an evocation of a particular place it’s hard to be too critical as I’ve never been to the fabled garden, but The Creatures in the Garden of Lady Walton is a brilliantly realised and ambitious cycle of songs. One of the great things about this is the fact Clogs albums by rights probably get far more exposure than they would otherwise do – thanks to the presence of Dessner (and Berninger by extension). Christ knows what the unsuspecting might make of these at times bloodless exercises in minimalism and captured emotion, not to mention the vaulting cries of Marina Warner. You’d hope they’d be as transfixed as the rest of us.

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