8 Track, LP (2012, Preservation)
Related: Sophie Hutchings.
There are some very effective ways to ensure that Sophie Hutchings’ magnificent second album gets none of the attention it deserves. One is to describe it as “neo-classical,” a term that makes sense (since, y’know, she plays a piano) but seems perfectly invented to terrify indie kids while also giving classical music lovers something at which to turn their noses up. So, for those who didn’t fall in love with the Mojo-approved 2010 debut Becalmed, allow me to explain why this is going to become your Sunday evening album of choice.
First up, it’s almost impossibly beautiful. Eight pieces of instrumental piano music with limited extra support – violin, cello, accordion, singing saw – that never pulls focus from her simple, often layered, right-hand melodies. While comparison could be drawn with Peter Broderick, or even with Michael Nyman’s more subtle pieces, the one reference that keeps coming to mind is American ensemble Rachel’s: this is deeply nocturnal music.
It’s also powerfully solitary music; sticking this on at a dinner party is likely to result in breakups by dessert. Night Sky is an album to soundtrack sorrow: loves lost and chances missed, empty vistas and windswept beaches. That said, it’s often an exhilarating kind of sadness – listen to the propulsive central movement of ‘Shadowed’, which wells like a sob desperately choked down. ‘Half-Hidden’ builds slowly before little echoes pop in and out of the stereo picture as other players slowly join Hutchings’ piano, while the barebones sketch ‘In Light’ takes a descending chord line and overlays it with a gorgeous melody line.
However, it’s the central ‘Between Earth and Sky’ that hits hardest: with a main theme that could almost be a Mogwai chord progression, Hutchings’ flowing playing repeats motifs and phrases before feeding into a (yes, Rachel’s-style) cut-up central movement. It’s followed by ‘Saber’s Beads’, probably the album’s most straightforward piece, where Hutchings’ deft use of suspended notes comes to the fore before a harmonium takes over for the coda. ‘By Night’ is a canon, with each repetition adding more subtle additions to the melody – a cello line, an oboe figure, a transposition up the keyboard – while ‘The Near Side’ is peppered with half-inaudible whispers buried in the mix like transmissions from the other side.
The production is perfectly suited to the music. Half the album sounds as though producer Tim Whitten (who has helmed similarly-intricate work for The Necks) recorded it at midnight in a mountaintop cabin, terrified of waking sleeping monsters. This isn’t music to whack on while you clean the house or drive to the shops: this demands attention and rewards it handsomely. Night Sky is the soundtrack to a film too heartbreakingly beautiful to exist.
by Andrew P Street