October 07, 2003

Movietone "The Sand & The Stars"

Movietone is perhaps one of the best-kept secrets of the psych-folk world. They appeared in the mid-90s, when Kate Wright left the noisy, turblent world of Flying Saucer Attack for a quieter, more pastoral sound. While still retaining that brooding atmosphere, their records--their sporadic records--impressed with a quiet strength that cannot be denied. Though they're a rare band indeed (this is only their fourth album in eight years), a new Movietone album is cause for celebration. 1997's Day & Night was a lush, post-pysch classic, full of moody atmospheres blended with folk, to wonderful effect. 2001's follow-up, The Blossom-Filled Streets, was even more lush and warm and glowing.

Two years later, and The Sand and The Stars is a bit of a puzzler. The lush instrumentation of the past records is barely around; on first listen, you'd be tempted to say that it was a rough, disjointed affair, hardly up to the heights of their previous work, and that it only occasionally soared as high as previous albums. While it's true that there is a significant change to the sound, it's one that's not for the worse. The Sand and The Stars is indeed a rougher-sounding record, but it's no less of an atmospheric record than before. At times, Movietone seems almost painfully self-aware; a clarinet here, a violin there, a cello over here--you could easily get the feeling that you were listening to a band going through a warm-up, that there wasn't any real organization to what was going on.

It's interesting, because it's obvious that Movietone mastermind Kate Wright has traded in her winter clothes and gloomy English weather for a cottage on the beach. How is it obvious? Well, considering that the album's artwork is done in a lovely sand/beach motiff, plus the occasional song reference to beaches and water and oceans and Mexico and places that are a bit warmer than a working town. Still, it's not a complaint, but it goes a long way in explaining why The Sand and The Stars sounds so different. And, really, Movietone doesn't sound that different than before, it's just that--priorites have changed.

The Sand and The Stars has this gentle, shambling sound--one that doesn't sound particularly organized on first listen--that fits this new style quite well; at times, it even feels a bit Velvet Undergroundy, but without the heroin. If anything, it's more folk than previous records, and the touches of clarinet and banjo and cello and all the little things that don't sound right makes it more precious. Songs like "Let Night In" and "Red Earth" are all so natural sounding. Less is more, and they've stripped down their sound. The real winner here, though, is "Beach Samba," which sounds like a fun little folk hoot on a warm summer night on the beach. Heck, they could have made it a singalong had they really wanted to.

While it may take a listen or two for Movietone's sound to really open up, when it does open up, it's a really nice feeling. They've made the perfect sunny summer album--just in time for grey winter days. The Sand and The Stars is a different record, for sure, but it's a surprisingly good change, and though their previous elements might be missed, they more than make up for them in charm. Yes, that's the best adjective for this album: charming. You will be charmed by this simple, pretty little record. I know I was.

--Joseph Kyle

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