I used to be in a school choir (when I was at school, luckily). The thing was that my school was a ludicrous place, so our performance space and occasional practice room was a sizeable abbey. When I say sizeable, I mean it was amongst the largest of its kind in Britain. Looking back on it, it was pretty amazing – this ancient, ringing place that was always on the verge of crumbling down but for gullible tourist donations. The thing is, as a general incompetent, I was late more often than not and would run down the nave as practice began and, as I did, the sheer magnificence of the sound would make me slow down to listen to it longer. Hearing all those words rendered basically inaudible by the sheer time it took for them to reach you meant that the echoes became the song, like some kind of posh shoegaze. That wash of sound was always better than experiencing my over-enthusiastic, partially palsied English teacher’s hollers in the choir stalls, entertaining though he was.
White Birds, although doubtless more technically gifted than Mr. Redacted, are similarly aided by their echoes. When Women Played Drums is their debut album under this moniker (some of them used to trade under the name Drink Up Buttercup, and must have done alright because they have a Wikipedia Page) and is chock-fucking-full of the things. The brilliant part is that, apart from that single trait, this album could have ended up a disparate mess: ‘Hondora’ would be a punchy pastoral full of sunburnt harmonies, ‘We Both Scream’ would sound like a surf song pitched somewhere between Best Coast and Animal Collective (so, basically the more interesting Beach Boys stuff they both stole from) and ‘Mirrors In Mirrors’ would be Beach House taking on ’80s synth pop and going a bit mental towards the end. Basically, it would all still be good, but it would make no sense.
But that echo – and what a bloody echo it is – changes everything it touches. Each song gains some sense of ethereal majesty, forces you to strain for the words and just sounds better, just like my choir. As an example, take ‘Body When You Coming Back’, a song that could, more than any other on the album, have ended up particularly badly. A gentle vocal set against simple guitar and drum patterns, leading to more voices, leading to a break, a crescendo and, finally a synth-augmented grand finale. It’s stadium rock. But, with the echo, it sounds like its being played to an empty stadium. And it’s fucking great. It’s not just the copious usage that makes the album good, however, it’s in knowing when to stop. Most obviously, this come in penultimate track ‘Veins Lined With Rust’, a track that makes silence its lead tool. Stark, crackling production covers a single guitar and James Harvey’s suddenly intimate vocals. It’s a track that calls to mind ‘A Small Stretch Of Land’ or ‘One Day This’ll All Be Fields’ from the Meursault albums – not just for their contrast to the albums they come from, but in the knowledge it displays of how to use production and track ordering to create a real flow, some abstract narrative to a record.
When Women Played Drums could have been unremarkable – worse, it could have been seriously, badly weird – yet, with one brilliant production choice, it’s turned itself into one of the best albums I’ve heard this year. In the same way that my choir sounded better from far away (and not because I wasn’t in it, haters), these tracks become unbelievably cool by swaddling themselves in something that should lessen their effect. White Birds have some serious talent. I fucking love this.