Urgh. We’ve all seen plenty of grotesque and disturbing cover art before, but somehow the battered and bloody faces of Jim Version and Caroline Ross (aka Tells) are just wrong. Our editor was so disturbed, sorting through CDs on his kitchen table, that he had to turn the case over lest nightmares ruin an already late night. It’s an uncomfortable image which introduces an uncomfortable album.
Tells have risen from the ashes of psych-jazz-prog combo Delicate AWOL, the aim being to strip down the sound by largely dropping the rhythm section and letting the twisting and off-kilter jazz melodies come to the fore. Twisting is the key word here – Ross’ vocal melodies twist one way, her basslines twist the other way and guitars and trumpet twist around and about in between, till we end up with a piece of musical rope full of track-sized knots; a kind of musical cat-o’-nine-tails. Ross’ talent as both a singer and a bass-player is indisputable, pulling off creepy harmonies with accuracy whilst dancing around on the bass with the evil precision of a goblin drill sergeant.
With all the twisting about though, things can get into a bit of a muddle. Rhythms and counter-rhythms merge into a confusion, and the absence of drums for large swathes of the album actually reduces clarity. The best bits are when the drums are allowed in. Boot Dust Clouds skips along beautifully with the dreamy vocals floating high above the album’s best bassline, and the trumpet chittering away is kept in its place by the drums and not allowed to mush up the track. Cicadas has Version’s guitar playing at being the eponymous tymbal-vibrating insect, and builds up a gentle canvas with great effect, every instrument (including the drums) only joining in at just the right moment.
However there’s a bit too much self-indulgent mush in between. Manalito’s Disguise is a perfect example, with every single instrument doodling away, seemingly aimlessly, nothing ever resolving, all very free jazz but all quite dull and pointless. Stick some drums underneath exactly the same track and it might have turned the muddle into a joyous cacophony (as in Boot Dust Clouds), but like this it’s more of a musical migraine. Likewise Colourful Sounds Of You starts off with promise but doesn’t really go anywhere, and then the annoying trumpet returns and starts wibbling about again.
And it’s that trumpet that really spoils it. It’s great when there’s a drummer to keep it under control, but the rest of the time it just feels as though the damn thing won’t shut up. It’s a bit like watching an arty film at the cinema and having to listen to someone behind you constantly explaining the plot to their significant other. Whichever song it crops up in, it always seems to be doing exactly the same thing, and many of the songs would be improved if it just wasn’t there.
As the album comes to a close, the slightly disappointing title track is redeemed no-end by the fantastic Their Chimes Are Our Undoing, which combines the best of Tells’ sound with rich textures, strange Japanese mumblings and percussive effects that wouldn’t be out of place on a Stereolab song. Both The Eyes Open is not as good, but does manage to keep the arrangement a little tighter, and finishes the album on a fairly positive note.
The press release described Hope Your Wounds Heal as a possible soundtrack to a remake of horror classic The Wicker Man. This is fairly accurate – at times it can feel like walking through an idyllic Scottish island full of hidden, pagan temptations and at times it feels like being burned alive in a giant wicker-suit (apologies if I spoiled the ending). It’s also a bit of a grower – initial listens may render more burned-alive moments than pagan frolics, but the balance does shift with repeated listens. Despite this, it is still too uncontrolled for its own good. It feels like Ross and Version are still hunting for their true sound, and maybe the birth of Tells is a part of that process. Maybe, once their wounds have healed, they will find it.