Album Reviews

Gerry Mitchell and Little Sparta – Scalpel Slice

(Fire) UK release date: 13 February 2006

Gerry Mitchell and Little Sparta - Scalpel Slice Scottish poet and all-round miserablist Gerry Mitchell here becomes the latest in a long line of poets to fuse their poetry with music, and enter their oeuvre into the cut-throat world of the record business. Whether or not this is a path that will do Mitchell credit is yet to be seen, but it does rely on picking the right musicians – unfortunately, on much of this debut mini-album, Little Sparta do him little justice.

It’s not that Sparta – a multi-national alt-country combo with an obvious liking for the main theme from Sergio Leone‘s Once Upon A Time In The West – are without some beautiful and poignant melodies. The mournful violins and sorrowful guitars are atmospheric enough, certainly, conjuring up the required images of desolation and poverty that Mitchell’s poems seem to require.

On Skyscraper Housebound it even works very effectively, with Mitchell’s voice clear and ominous over a tearful harmonium droning and a violin scratching away furiously. “Skyscraper housebound, to what kind of reality are you bound?” asks Mitchell, and the music punctuates the question well – which is good, because for the rest of the album the music seems to work against – not for – the poetry.

With the best poetry-to-music albums, it’s the words that dictate the rhythm and flow of the music, which is there to serve the poetry at all times. William Burroughs‘ legendary album with Michael Franti‘s Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy is the perfect example of this – you returned from the first listen knowing that you’d heard some great music but with a head chock-full of Burroughs’ startling stories.

On the opening title track to this album, you’d be hard pressed to even make out what Mitchell is saying half the time. The musical accompaniment also tends to sand off all the sharp edges in Mitchell’s delivery, softening the anger and diluting its impact. Mocking Mirror is full of fury, and though the music provides a nice counterpoint in its sadness, it dilutes the vocal track.

The result is that Mitchell sometimes ends up coming across a bit like a Scottish, manic depressive, alcoholic version of Marty from Shameless. This is unfortunate, as when he’s good (Skyscraper Housebound again), he gives a forceful and emotional performance.

With more than a third of the running time given over to two instrumental tracks, it’s clear that this is more Little Sparta’s album than it is Gerry Mitchell’s. While their alt-country soundscapes can be evocative, there are other bands that inhabit this territory so much more effectively that Little Sparta come across as fairly ordinary by comparison.

Whether Mitchell can harness the potential of this particular oeuvre will depend upon whether or not he can harness the anger and indignation of his work and let it stand out on top. As for now, this is probably a record for Mitchell’s existing admirers only.

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Gerry Mitchell and Little Sparta – Scalpel Slice