Album Reviews

Alistair The Optimist – Alistair The Optimist

(Milk Float) UK release date: 12 December 2011

This project is not just a fulfillment of an ambition to write and record an album (still a substantial creative achievement even in this age of relative ease of access to technology), it also represents a brilliant triumph over physical and emotional limitations. Alistair suffers from Motor Neurone Disease, a degenerative disease that causes progressive loss of mobility in the limbs and which currently remains incurable. This recording is a culmination of Alistair’s desire to record quickly, before the disease prevented him from playing drums. It is also being released in conjunction with an MND Association campaign promoting ‘incurable optimism’ – a more positive presentation of living with this undoubtedly terrible disease.

Alistair is primarily a drummer but, by the time the band gathered together to record this album over a long weekend at Cross Leaze farm studio in August last year, he had already lost some of his strength and mobility. Unable to operate his foot pedals, the group worked together to devise a new set-up that enabled him to play and for the band to record basic tracks live. His bass drum was turned on its side and Alistair played basic, fundamental rhythms using his hands. Finding it difficult to grip conventional drum sticks, he instead used hot-rods, which, as well as having a thicker base, comprise thin tubular strips of wood banded together and create a very different, more rustic sound. This actually adds a great deal of character and feel to the album as a whole, and the live approach to recording has meant that these songs have a great deal of emotion and conviction.

Although the focus of the MND campaign is understandably on Alistair, this is very much a band project, with songs written by various band members, often in collaboration with each other. The songs all share a simplicity, directness and clarity. Although horns and strings have sometimes been overdubbed, there is nothing here that feels extraneous – and it is the sound and feel of the ensemble that primarily makes the music so generous and evocative. It’s straightforward, unassuming music, executed with considerable skill and feeling, that makes a clear virtue of its simplicity. Where there are additions – fiddle, banjo, the backing vocals of New Pornographers‘ Kathryn Calder (who lost her mother to ALS and contacted Alistair after hearing about the campaign), they seem entirely appropriate to their surroundings – enhancement rather than clutter.

The richness and clarity of Alex Moore’s voice, particularly in these largely acoustic settings, seems reminiscent of some of the lusher, forgotten end of nineties British alternative pop – The Unbelievable Truth and Gene are two acts that spring to mind as reference points, particularly on the relaxed, graceful 6/8 lilt of Metal Men. There’s also a maturity and calmness to the overall sound that suggests the influence or arch, sophisticated songwriters such as Chris Difford or Boo Hewerdine.

Knowledge of Alistair’s condition inevitably imbues the songs with a rather different gravitas, not least No One’s familiar descriptions of the unavoidable passage of time (“first your here and then you’re gone”). Nevertheless, in keeping with the theme of the campaign, whilst this music can sometimes be melancholy or reflective, it also has a breeziness and crispness that feels, well, optimistic. So, whilst the opening In The Wake might comprise a litany of disappointments, the final repeated chant (“roll the stone away”) feels like both an acceptance and an affirmation. The defiant triumph in the face of adversity of Nothing To Me Now is also a prime example. The mood of the whole project is neatly encapsulated in the positive closer Survivors.

22% of the proceeds raised from downloads of this album will go to the MND Association, the rest to supporting Alistair’s family. The album has a modest but powerful resonance, however, and the music itself is a contribution that both supports and goes beyond the context of the campaign.

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