Bands who have endured for long enough to reach a fourth album often face a tricky conundrum – how to develop their sound, approach and ideas without sacrificing the qualities that make them distinctive? Sometimes this leads to uncomfortable reactions to previous albums or to abrupt shifts in direction. The best artists manage to achieve some sort of natural, comprehensible evolution that attracts new listeners as well as satisfying longstanding admirers.
It is this that Sweet Billy Pilgrim, one of the UK’s most adventurous and consistently engaging bands, have achieved with Motorcade Amnesiacs. There are some quite substantial developments here – greater roles for individual band members (particularly Jana Carpenter, who sings lead vocals on several of the tracks), unusual and striking arrangements, a sharper pop sensibility to match the progressive overtones and a greater sense of fun and adventure.
This is still a band that seems to revel in the rejection of conventional rules and expectations – arguably even more so here than before. Perhaps as a result of this, Motorcade Amnesiacs doesn’t quite cohere as strongly as Twice Born Men or Crown And Treaty – but then that’s perhaps at least partially the point. After listening to much of this music, it’s hard to see why heavy rock riffs to rival Black Sabbath shouldn’t sit comfortably alongside Tears For Fears-inspired sophisticated pop, sudden injections of disco grooves or the country and blues-tinged melancholy largely contributed by Jana Carpenter.
Quite often, Tim Elsenberg and his band members inject several ideas in to the space of one song. FFwd To The Freeze Frame begins with angular, rhythmic poise and a striking arrangement of saxophones before subliming into something lush and euphoric. Coloma Blues manages to combine some classic rock tropes (harmonised guitar lines, hints of heavy metal) with cinematic sound worlds and a Nashville-tinged chorus. It feels like a vivid hallucination – the kind of experiment which shouldn’t work, but which in this band’s hands inevitably does.
Then there are the moments of sheer surprise – such as the brittle, quasi-reggae groove on the verses of We Just Did What Happened And Nobody Came or the disco meets pristine 80s pop confection of Just Above Midtown (blessed with one of the band’s most glorious and infectious choruses). Moments such as this serve to underline the band’s ethos – these are musicians who care little for appeasing fashions or trends, but rather simply follow their ideas and inspirations wherever they lead.
Other tracks appear to adopt a more linear approach. Slingshot Grin builds patiently from a gritty, Tom Waits-infused first act to a more richly orchestrated finale. The gentler, more reflective Longstreth (presumably named after Dave Longstreth from Dirty Projectors, a similarly adventurous and meticulous act) briefly incorporates some of the more bucolic strands of the band’s sound familiar from Crown And Treaty, before expanding outwards in to a shimmering delight. It is at once both vulnerable and powerful.
The band have also found some strands that lead back to their roots too. The opening Candle Book And Bell might even be considered a slightly misleading starting point given how comfortably it could have sat on Crown And Treaty. It has a classic SBP chorus, big and melodic but not brazen or manipulative. We Just Did What Happened And Nobody Came fuses some of their earlier characteristics with new sounds and ideas, its title almost directly referencing the name of their less well known debut album.
Whenever Carpenter sings, the music seems to adopt different qualities – more reflective and melancholy perhaps – but not in an introverted way. Her tone is also brighter and more outward reaching. It is this further meeting of worlds – unforced and compelling – that makes Motorcade Amnesiacs such a successful work.