John Parish seems to have spent the majority of his musical life dwarfed by the shadows of those he has collaborated with. He has written and produced for the likes of Giant Sand, Eels, Sparklehorse and Tracy Chapman, but is most well known for his prolonged dalliance with PJ Harvey as a friend, producer and instrumentalist. After meeting a teenage Polly Jean at a party he asked her to join his band Automatic Dlamini, with his musical relationship with the West Country siren reaching its peak with the under appreciated LP Dance Hall At Louise Point.
The opening track Salo, on this his second solo record, is a misleading left turn. A fragile piano instrumental, it sounds like the opening bars of a soundtrack to those strange Eastern European cartoons that would pop up on wet Tuesday evening on the BBC in some distant childhood. The grainy silences between the notes produce a sinister ambience, and you can picture dark silhouettes darting back and forth across a sepia backdrop, the tune to a grim fairytale.
Only on Boxers do the songs get close to mirroring the sound of PJ Harvey’s gothic blues. A series of bass notes tumble out punch drunk and reeling, the drums sound as dry as tinder and Parish’s vocal claustrophobic and weary as he reflects on the physical violence that lies at the heart of the boxing ring and the emotional violence that courses through failing relationships. An edgy, spiky guitar slices through the mix dropping clusters of notes; it’s restrained malevolence recalling Captain Beefheart.
Choices is constructed around a beautifully judged backward string loop. Military tattoo drums thump as the strings slide and crackle and the vocals are lush and warm, Parish sounding like a Bristolian Edwin Collins. The lyrics, a gentle hymn to the joys of ageing and of watching your love for someone growing slowly over time. It could be mawkish and over sentimental but works wonderfully well.
The songs then take on a country hue. Country as it’s performed by the Bad Seeds or The Walkabouts not the empty rhinestone spectacle of Shania Twain or Garth Brooks. Even Redder Than That ups the pace, a jaunty Cajun backing that stomps along. A heavily treated guitar chord corrodes through the opening of Somebody Else before the melody is strapped onto a catchy baseline, the vocals loaded with a weary country growl before becoming sweetness and light for the chorus. The songs hum with the kind of dark tones that Mark Lanegan explored so well on Bubblegum.
The LP is littered with clever sonic touches. A little distortion to the vocals, background hiss hidden in the mix, a sweet counter vocal; the closer you listen the more it reveals. In a similar vein to Mick Harvey‘s One Man’s Treasure, it’s a great to see Parish centre stage. The songs on Once Upon A Little Time bloom as slowly as lotus blossom, their graceful colours and subtle variations revealing themselves gradually. Given time to breathe, they lodge themselves gently into your psyche and refuse to let go.