“The only records that we sell are fake.” So says Kevin Donaldson during Reasoning And Rhyme, second track from The Murmur‘s second studio album. Maybe he’s right: in a strange way, this band really ought not to exist, and listening to this album is a surreal experience at first. Once you get over the initial ‘why?’ factor however (anyone who’s heard the band will have already done so), then it’s hard not to be very impressed.
Like their debut, The Centre Pages, Vietnam Morning is a short album of perfectly constructed three minute pop songs from late ’60s San Francisco, in the vein of The Byrds, Crosby Stills And Nash or any number of their contemporaries. Except it’s not a short album (it’s just over 30 minutes) going by 21st century standards and this is a ’60s album. Performed by Americans. Well they sound like Americans (they’ve got that West Coast accent), and they’re singing about Vietnam, San Francisco, Marylin Monroe etc. all in the contemporary tense. Except then they mention Paris Hilton. Damn I’m confused.
You see, The Murmur aren’t just influenced by late ’60s summer-of-love Americana. They’ve somehow gone back in time and become exactly that. If you didn’t know this album was new material, if you’d just heard it on the radio, you’d be racking your brains thinking “hey, I remember this one, what the hell was it called now?” before attacking your parents’ record collection once more in order to track it down. Insanity and psychiatric intervention would eventually greet your inevitable failure. But, despite the American accents, The Murmur are English – Kidderminster, actually. Before 2003 they didn’t even exist, and now they’re selling fake ’60s Americana. Why?
There’s only one reason I can find – and it’s a compelling one. They’re very, very good at it. These aren’t postmodernist sideswipes at the history of popular culture, they’re just good songs.
Opener Measuring the Rain beautifully evokes the loneliness of lovers separated by wartime. The aforementioned Reasoning and Rhyme takes the groove from Last Train To Clarksville and crafts another little ’60s number just as good as that one. Miss Mundane and the title track are both filled with the infinite sadness of the era’s protest songs. It’s hard these days to imagine how it must have felt to be passionately against a war, knowing that your Government could call on you any day to fight in it. So many bands have tried to copy this sound and sounded hollow because they lacked that sincerity. The Murmur, through reverence to the music and considered song construction, have captured it well.
There are a few modern references to be found, and even a couple of British ones. As well as Paris Hilton, a methadone-dealing Maggie Thatcher trawls the American highways whilst Richard Nixon works the streets of King’s Cross – a school exchange made in hell, perhaps?
It’s interesting, too, to compare The Murmur’s music with John Squire’s take on the same influences during our all-too-brief British Summer of Love that rang in the 1990s. Put Bluebell Wood next to The Stone Roses‘ Ten Storey Love Song and they’re musically very similar – but whilst the Roses almost defined their own era, The Murmur are both 15 years ahead of them and 20 years behind them at the same time.
Maybe that’s what makes listening to Vietnam Morning such a surreal experience – it feels impossible to place it in time, in our own understanding of musical chronology. If you forget the bigger picture and focus on the songs, though, the image is much clearer. Do this, and Vietnam Morning is nothing more, and nothing less, than a collection of eleven perfect songs.