Album Reviews

Various – Beneath The Surface Volume 3: A Bella Union Sampler

(Bella Union) UK release date: 12 February 2007


Everyone has their favourite bands and many of us have our favourite genres – musical landscapes and islands we know we can trust. Even better than both of those, somehow, are those special record labels you know you can always rely on to deliver the goods.

Immediate was one of the first, delivering Andrew Loog Oldham-approved 60s pop to the swinging masses. Stiff was one of the rulers of the 70s, and not long afterwards along came Cherry Red, Rough Trade, 4AD, Sarah Records and, more recently Domino. Special labels that can be guaranteed not to put out anything that doesn’t deserve to be committed to vinyl, CD or mp3. Bella Union is one of those labels.

You may have noticed that we like Bella Union here at musicOMH towers. It was the only label that managed two albums in our 2006 end of year best-of list: Howling Bells’ eponymous debut and Midlake’s The Trials Of Van Occupanther. So, of course, it stands to reason that we’re going to love its new sampler.

How could we not, when it’s full of special little treats such as rarities from Howling Bells and The Dears plus material from equally worthy newbies Stephanie Dosen and The Kissaway Trail who, admittedly, have possibly the worst band name of the year but are in fact pretty good. They’ve learned a thing or two from listening to Howling Bells anyway, that’s for sure.

You can hear the influence of label boss and former Cocteau Twin Simon Raymonde in much of the ethereal, haunting pop melodies that weave their way through this album but nonetheless it’s a rich and varied mix, starting with the gentle indie-pop of My Latest Novel. Like The Dears, they sound at times as if they’ve been subliminally fed Smiths riffs from the womb onwards.

If haunting, midnight orchestrations are your bag, take your pick between Stephanie Dosen, whose darkly brooding piano intro disolves into low and spacey operatic vocals or Dustin O’Halloran, whose minimalist keys could soundtrack the same movie. Halloran’s Opus 28 is as beautiful and sumptuous as its name implies and it’s an excellent joke that the following track, Dirty Three’s Everything’s Fucked is just as much a laidback slice of post-rock chamber strings rather than the three chord grindie fest its title might imply. By now, you know Bella Union wouldn’t do that to you.

Howling Bells need no reintroduction of course – and if they do, go and wash your ears out with soap now, dimwit – which is why Bella Union is offering a rarity here as a little temptation to buy the package and see what else you might like. As one of the more upbeat combos represented, they’re a perfect foil to the band that immediately follows them, the aptly named Explosions In The Sky, whose arty soundscapes sound just like that, filtered through a vague haze of a late night at All Tomorrow’s Parties.

And there’s more. Ambient, beepingly lovely electronica from Robert Gomez on his own and then, as if fab-but-unlikely duos are the new wave of nu rave this year we also find him teamed up with Stephanie Dosen, a pairing that could give Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan a run for their money.

You prefer folk, did you say? Never fear. You can choose from Midlake – summery hippie dreams with medieval melodies – and then follow them up with Fionn Regan who’s much the same but more acoustic and delicate. The juxtaposition works beautifully, rather than sounding too samey, it’s more like you can hear a little voice from Bella Union whispering in your ear: ya thought that was good? Ha, wait til you hear what’s next.

At the end of it all, there’s the electronic stomp, ’70s synths and barely-there vocals of Under Byen, a perfect end to a pretty much perfect album. With not a duff track in sight it looks like it could be Bella Union’s year. Again.


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