A Hound At The Helm
, December 12th, 2012 08:50
Despite the stage name, Slim Twig is not actually a cigar-chomping septuagenarian Mississippi Delta blues guitarist; rather, the young man known to his film-maker parents as Max Turnbull is a slicked-back, sharp-suited twenty-something Canadian multi-tasker with an uncanny knack for charmingly retro psych-pop.
He's also an accomplished actor, the co-founder - alongside his wife Meg Remy (whose band U.S. Girls he also plays in and produces) - of his own record label, and the recipient of comparisons in terms of both style and substance to David Bowie, Lou Reed, Nick Cave and Elvis. He’s perhaps the sort that us regular, talentless folk would love to hate if only he weren’t so bloody good at everything.
Barely two months on from the release of his last long-player, Sof' Sike, Turnbull is back with his most ambitious work to date: an album inspired by Nabakov's Lolita and Serge Gainsbourg's A Histoir De Melody Nelson, featuring elaborate string arrangements by Arcade Fire collaborator Owen Pallett. If its predecessor's title was a play on the whimsical paisley-patterned sound of the nuggets contained within, then A Hound At The Helm - released on Twig and Remy’s Calico Corp. imprint – may as well be subtitled Hard Candy; not only are these songs more melodically and structurally complex, they're also tougher, bolder, with a distinctly sour twist. It's almost as if someone has spiked Turnbull's punch.
For a concept album based on a concept album, Hound actually bears scant resemblance to the music that inspired it. There are a few overt Gainsbourg nods - the frantic, harpsichord led ‘Clerical Collar’ for example - but they are closer in feel to the Frenchman's earlier chanson and pop output (songs like ‘Le Poinconneur Des Lilas’ and ‘Docteur Jekyll Et Monsieur Hyde’) than to the slinky funk of his classic 1971 album.
Instead, much of the record owes a sizeable debt to Scott Walker, from the cryptic lyrics and the deep, velvety club-singer croon Turnbull often employs to the swirling ‘Jackie’-esque strings of ‘Heavy Splendour’ and ‘Shroud By The Sheetful’’s spiralling, off-key hook. Even “All This Wanting”, with its jaunty rolling piano and fuzz guitar, exudes an air of almost malicious mischief, making Hound a wholly satisfactory solution for those Walker fans who find themselves torn between the full-bodied melodrama of his earliest solo work and the often impenetrable soundscapes of the post-Climate Of Hunter years.
It’s this balance of accessibility and experimentation that makes Hound – and indeed Twig himself – such an intriguing prospect. For every chunk of Zombies-esque pop-psych riffage, there’s a muffled hip-hop beat buried deep in the mix; for every elegant orchestral flourish, there’s a vocal that sounds like it’s been dubbed in Lee Perry’s echo chamber. Whilst the poppier moments are more immediate, the stuttering drums and phased synths of ‘Hover On A Sliver’ and swampy Hooked On Black Sabbath strings of closer ‘Blonde Ascending (Come Into The Clatter)’ prove even more rewarding in the long term. In more ways than one Hound is the kind of album one sees described as an artist’s masterpiece, but with an already extensive discography covering everything from blues to beats to his name, it’s quite likely Slim’s best is yet to come.