As though specifically crafted for Valentine’s Day, Songs Of Gold & Shadow is a sickly-sweet collection of demure, minimal pop, wistful folk and extrovert, romantic art rock. Over the course of the record, singer and general helmswoman Cleo T brings classic Gallic elegance and romance to a remarkably listenable set of metropolitan tunes – she whispers, urges, howls and cries her message across 11 varied and engaging tracks, some of which glisten brighter than others.
This is a pretty record, well thought out and well-crafted, with added art-rock cred from the much-touted appearance of lyrics written specially for the project by Robert Wyatt, and production from John Parish. The former needs no introduction here, but Parish’s past work includes production and instrumental performances for PJ Harvey, Eels, Sparklehorse and others. A natural fit, then, for both the melodrama and old-school aesthetic on display here.
The instrumentation throughout is made up of a five piece, and each player swings and sways with the rhythm of the record – each player gets a showcase moment somewhere on the record. Electric guitarist Nicola Stone’s moment comes deep into second tune We All – clean electric guitar rings and twangs into a rockabilly solo that contrasts with Cleo’s poised, breathy vocal and the soft vibe held down by brushed snare and chiming piano. Her quavering head-voice tilts and chirps to the romantic, dedicative tone of the lyrics.
Standout tracks include Me And The Ghost, and Little Girl Lost. The former is a lush, softly-swaying cabaret torch-ballad complete with jangling chains and bluesy backing hums. It’s got a smouldering jazz vibe, shimmering guitars and superb double-bass work from a guy called ‘Colonel Mitch’. The latter is a minimal, handclap-led tune that finds Cleo’s sultry tones supplemented by Eric Birdream’s cowbell and spare percussion.
Those unfamiliar with this kind of sound may enjoy the similarities between Whistles In The Night and ghostly menace of Nick Cave’s rootsier work, particularly Murder Ballads or Henry’s Dream. The baritone backing vocal accompaniment is fantastic, adding to the overall effect of ghostly bucolia conjured by Cave for those projects, and disinterred here. Columbine, the third track, features a softly strummed acoustic guitar, and folk-y percussion – with added brass, the track would be a dead ringer for Jakob Dylan’s Lend a Hand.
Trista Stella opens with a creepy tinkling of percussion, before developing into a piano-led piece, with sombre strings and Italian lyrics – this is worth highlighting. Cleo seems completely happy to sing in foreign tongues, yet seems reluctant to ‘take the plunge’ and record the songs in her native tongue. French, when spoken or sung, would surely fit the theme, tones and lyrics far better than English, and while Cleo T has made mention of the influence of Symbolist poetry on her lyrics, she seems abashed by the language the greatest Symbolist poetry was written in: her own.
Dead and Gone tempers Gothic melodrama with Cleo’s expressive vocal timbre, here resembling Kate Bush’s airier moments. Kingdom of Smoke is another slow-burn effort – this time plucked Spanish guitar notes hang over brushed snare and piercing flamenco horns. ‘Once there was a Summer/ Growing hopes and watercolours’ is a particularly fetching lyric.
Some Day My Prince Will Come is the final track, which opens with gramophone crackling and a vocal line borrowed from Vera Lynn. The epilogue, with those Wyatt lyrics, is the most tender yet more austere moment on the record. The vocals hang like gossamer over a stark piano sound and tinkling bells.
Cleo T’s strengths here are her vocal dexterity and glamorous, bygone-era aesthetic. Her weaknesses are the weaknesses of her genre as a whole: this mix of glitter and doom is a niche style, peddled by fewer and fewer artists. There isn’t enough sturm-and-drang to appeal directly to Tom Waits fans, not enough light-and-shade for Polly Harvey fans, and she doesn’t use her sexuality (and theremin) like a weapon a la St Vincent.
Songs Of Gold & Shadow is, then, a well-made record, a quality record. However, as it will only appeal to the people who have already bought into her aesthetic and connection to art-rock royalty, it reeks of self-indulgence. This, of course, is a shame.