Whyte Horses is the latest project of Manchester musician Dom Thomas, and Pop Or Not is the band’s debut. Originally released as a private pressing last year, it’s now getting a full release on small indie label CRC Records. This trajectory from wilful obscurity to relative unknown seems characteristic of Thomas’ relationship with music. As the co-founder of the Finders Keepers label, whose business model is based on crate-digging and reissuing obscurities from all over the world, he has brought many artists from complete darkness into mere shadowlands.
Thomas has been described as a ‘music chronologist’: although it’s clear whether he would identify as such himself, that description neatly provides a kind of context for Whyte Horses while throwing up a few questions, not least the question of what a music chronologist actually is. There is something quasi-academic about that title, but the kind of character it conjures up is an obsessive record collector and a person intent on drawing connections between records that span diverse times and spaces.
There is also a hint of mock pretension in there, and that’s reflected in the statement from the Whyte Horses Facebook page introducing the track La Couleur Originelle: “It is absolutely essential to listen to this track thinking about a huge modernist house and a small submarine being pulled by a string.”
The album was recorded over three months in a cottage in Italy, and perhaps it has absorbed some of the atmosphere of that location, but there is no single sense of place. This is in part due to the contributions of singer-guitarist Julie Margat, who sings sometimes in English, sometimes in French. Margat, who has also recorded prolifically as Lispector, is from France, so the record’s bilingualism has an obvious explanation; but it also seems suited to the idea of the global crate-digging chronologist.
There is also something distinctly Mancunian about it, most particularly in the two tracks that bookend the album, both of which recall The Stone Roses. The opener, Pop Or Not, is an instrumental in which jangly guitar crescendoes over an insistent drum beat; the closer, Natures Mistakes, is slower, with slight chillwave leanings, but definite baggy vibes. The Snowfalls has a similar mood, but is tempered with pastoral psychedelic moments, exemplified in the lyric: “We are clouds passing by, wandering the sky, blowing in the memories of our minds.”
The Go! Team are another obvious reference point; this is explained by the involvement of that band’s lynchpin Ian Parton. His work is audible in Promise I Do, with its lo-fi sound, its energy, and the points where vocals and instruments share a melody line; and in the bell-like keyboard of instrumental Wedding Song. Elsewhere there are moments of what sound like ’60s girl group pastiche (La Couleur Originelle), guitar-based vignettes (Relance Il; The Other Half Of the Sky), and lo-fi pop punk (Astrologie Siderale).
Pop Or Not is a sprawling album – in this respect it calls to mind Badly Drawn Boy, who is connected to Thomas via his producer and collaborator Andy Votel, who co-founded Finders Keepers. This sprawl, and the admirable reluctance of the band to settle on a single genre, means that the album raises plenty of questions. But perhaps the biggest question raised is that of whether we should expect a follow-up album from Whyte Horses. While the record goes in all sorts of directions, its uniqueness means that a second album is hard to imagine. It seems more likely that Thomas will decide an another new project and do something different instead, so its worth enjoying Pop Or Not very much on its own terms.