Ilya’s 2004 debut They Died For Beauty was overlooked. In fact, it was passed over so criminally that they were released from their Virgin contract soon after its release. Yet they were liberally showered with critical acclaim – you’ll remember their Bellissimo from those Revlon ads featuring Martin Freeman – and hailed as the best thing from Bristol for donkey’s years. After two long years in the wilderness, are they jaded?
Brilliantly, they are not. Quite the opposite, actually: Somerset is the glorious delivery of all those wonderfully exciting promises they made the first time around. It swims in a thick fog of classic sensuality, the songwriting having eventually caught up with Joanna Swan’s vintage, ethereal tones. They Died For Beauty’s inconsistencies have been ironed out to phenomenal ends.
Ilya, it would seem, have no contemporary rivals: with the exception of certain instrumental outfits (GoTan Project, Stephane Pompougnac), nobody and nothing can touch their sparse-yet-rich arrangements; their delicately realised resolve; their antediluvian solutions to prevailing musical posers. It’s almost as if they’ve been brought to us from the 1950’s Parisian lounge scene, a crash course in all the essential transitionals thrown in along the way for good measure (Falling Everywhere’s vaguely glam stomp; Wonderful’s Clapton-esque guitar sob).
Somerset’s opener September Rendezvous picks up where their Virgin efforts left off, replete with tantalisingly delivered continental lyrics, prudent verse and an opulent chorus that burrows gently into your subconscious, snuggling warmly next to memories of Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone and hair-raisingly beautiful artists of yesteryear. In The Valley joins all the same dots in a different order before Falling Everywhere wanders confidently into the fray, wielding – of all things – what appears to be an electric guitar and an effects pedal. It’s an unorthodox move on Ilya’s part, but it works. Oh boy, does it ever work.
The freshly-nurtured songwriting strength reaches an epiphanic zenith on Wonderful, a profoundly realised, softly touching piano-led love song the likes of which have not been heard for a long time. “If I fall lightly to the ground,” asks Swan in her dulcet timbre; “Will you lie down and stay there with me?… Will you always be wonderful?” It’s a question all too easily asked of a band given a new lease of life.
Whereas the mid-section marked the point at which They Died For Beauty fell away ever so slightly, Somerset’s midriff is as toned as they come: Airborne’s smokey caf� bass is the perfect foil for Swan’s vocal flightpath; We Shone carefully ups the tempo with palm mutes, hi-hat riding and some over-dubbed harmonies that have to be heard to be believed; Winter In Vienna digs out the accordian and horns, lifting the band from the streets of Bristol to the cabanas of Havana.
And it doesn’t end there: Somerset soars from ear-pricklingly good to unstoppably great; from four stars to five. Glory takes on the aforementioned GoTan Project at their own game and comes off favourably, while Juanita’s skewed, insane trumpet solos lounge suggestively beside a seductive, Jessica Rabbit-like vocal track. Sealing the deal with an aural kiss, Sleepwalking propels Ilya’s anything-to-hand attitude to new heights with a breathtaking m�lange of double bass, capricious flute licks and some deeply inflected, throaty lines.
With their debut LP they made promises they couldn’t quite keep. With Somerset, however, Bristol’s Ilya have fulfilled their own prophecies and then some, meeting their most far-fetched expectations and, thrillingly, going even further. Without the slightest exaggeration, this is one of the decade’s most devastatingly beautiful albums. Il y a un Dieu. Vraiment.