Friday, January 11, 2008

The Real Tuesday Weld

I've been a fan of Stephen Coates' The Real Tuesday Weld since hearing a few tracks via some Kindercore compilations years ago (Coates' first American label), and immediately falling in love. It's important that you swoon or fall head over heels when listening to The Real Tuesday Weld (so named because "Tuesday Weld" was already taken by another band), because that's what his music is about. Well, love and death, anyway. And drink. He sings torch songs and French-styled pop music laced with dance beats, clarinet, piano, trumpet, synthesizer, sound effects, old-movie-dialogue...damp umbrellas and lit cigarettes most especially. His is a very cinematic sound, in other words. More than any other music I've ever heard, his sounds like black-and-white movies, in particular gritty, jaded noir of the 40's, and continental romantic films of the 50's.

Terminally Ambivalent Over You (from Where Psyche Meets Cupid, 2001)

He calls himself "the Clerkenwell Kid," and each of his albums invokes the name at one point or another, as a running gag of sorts. This really came to blossom in I, Lucifer (2003), one of those rare things--a soundtrack to a novel, in this case a sardonic tale of Lucifer's visiting Earth as written by Glen Duncan. The concept album becomes a grand excuse for Coates to embrace his alter ego while merging it with the Devil, as on "The Life and Times of the Clerkenwell Kid," a tall tale autobiography in which he describes his own birth: "Disposed of the doctor/made out with the nurse/yeah I was born a bastard/and I just got worse." But his Miltonesque Satan is tragic; he falls in love with a mortal, as Death does in Death Takes a Holiday, and as angels have made a habit (Wings of Desire, The Bishop's Wife). So while there are mischievous songs like this and the nonsense scat of "Bathtime in Clerkenwell," there's also much toy piano, strings, duets, and heartbreaking melodies. The album is almost entirely atmosphere, drenched in fog and Coates' trademark breathy/raspy vocals. It's a delicate whisper of an album.

Easter Parade (from I, Lucifer)

"Bathtime in Clerkenwell" became an award-winning animated video by Alex Budovsky. Budovsky got the job after designing a video for "Terminally Ambivalent Over You" on his own volition and sending it to Coates. His video for "Clerkenwell" is ingenious, with simple black cut-outs on a stark white background staging a siege of London by fascistic cuckoo clock birds. What I love most about the short is how quickly it moves, rapidly developing its linear narrative into extreme, Pythonesque proportions. (It's included on The Animation Show Volume 1 DVD on Paramount Home Video, and is featured in a much lower-res video on the I, Lucifer enhanced CD.) Budovsky has since become Coates' right-hand animator, and among their works is a collaborative video for the popular favorite "Brazil."

2005 saw the release of The Return of the Clerkenwell Kid, a reintroduction of Coates' earliest material which went out of print in the States. As added incentive to fans, the songs are remixes (even the earlier American version of Where Psyche Meets Cupid featured slightly remixed versions of the original U.K. album) mixed in with newer songs that, frankly, sound more modern and don't quite gel with the others. On the other hand, the newer songs are fantastic. "On Lavender Hill" is a bittersweet reverie about an Ex, and "Something Beautiful" brings Coates into Moby territory while successfully retaining his own sharp sensibilities. On the whole, the album serves a fine introduction to The Real Tuesday Weld's charms, although it skips the essential "Terminally Ambivalent Over You" (admittedly, already redone on I, Lucifer).

On Lavender Hill (from The Return of the Clerkenwell Kid)

Now he's just released his best album by far, The London Book of the Dead. Like I, Lucifer, it acts as a concept album, but more in its unity from beginning to end than in any overt thematic relevance. It's another hushed whisper of an album, but the quietest songs are among his most beautiful: "Blood Sugar Love," "Bringing the Body Back Home," "Dorothy Parker Blue." And when he soars, the album's busted neon really begins to shine: "Last Words" is quite striking, setting the tone for the album's somber but moving final sequence, ruminating on death much as I, Lucifer moved inexorably toward "The Pearly Gates." Speaking of the dead, it is curious to note that the majority of his songbook consists of music that would be fitting for a funeral. Mind you--a sexy, rainy funeral ridden with betrayal, murder, and rebuffed advances, but nevertheless a funeral to attend.

Dorothy Parker Blue (from The London Book of the Dead)

The Real Tuesday Weld - Bathtime in Clerkenwell

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