No Handshake Blues
, January 26th, 2017 22:57
Irma Vep is a construct built around Manchester-entrenched Welshman Edwin Stevens, a bowerbird of outsider music that makes awkward compositions designed to tear you down just to build you up again. His moonlighting with other acts – the freeform anarchy of Desmadrados Soldados De Ventura, the lurid ridiculousness of Sex Hands, the layered esotericism that comes with backing from Kiran Leonard and his band – further augments his scattershot proclivities. With fourth album No Handshake Blues, though, Stevens as Irma Vep has – in evoking broken dreams and choking ennui – crafted an album transcendent despite its faults.
Successful ambition doesn’t come stronger than the songs that bookend the album: eleven-minute opener ‘A Woman’s Work Is Never Done’, starting with rumbling thunder, the smattering of falling rain and a distant bell toll, we are pitched headlong into a eddying miasma of sinuous psychedelic tides and a bedrock of looping violin drone, Stevens’ reverb-cloaked vocals plodding through the veiled mists. The ebb and flow, the restraint and the deluge, creates a cocoon of scabrous melancholy that somehow soothes – a sonic salve not far removed from Velvet Underground’s most rhythmic downward spirals. It’s a brilliant opening gambit; muscular yet brittle in equal measure, before it collapses in on itself in a glorious white heat. ‘Still Sorry’ sticks its burrs in long after the last strains crackle out of the speakers. It’s a song that seems synonymous with other Faux Discx stablemates (Faux Fur, Androgynous Mind) – the Women-esque guitar jangle and vocals floating on rather than drowning in reverb. But ‘Still Sorry’ is something else again – an orchestral psych-pop whimsy that builds and swells into an echo chamber of agitated anguish, hidden underneath a shimmering veneer of pastoral beauty, Stevens’ howling “I’m still sorry/I don’t know what I want,” gnashing his teeth amidst the exquisiteness. A song that manages to be glorious and gutting in both size and temperament.
But No Handshake Blues doesn’t cast a straight die. ‘It Runs Slow’ is more ruminative, yet delivered as in a cavern, a wistful chorus, chagrin etched in its maudlin drift. To throw you off the scent of conventionality, there is the 44-second scrit-and-clatter of ‘Plod’, while ‘Hey, You’ offers a sub-two minute ditty on love, sounding more demo than most other tracks here, yet instilled with Stevens’ tired hauntedness, punctured by the smattering of applause fading out at the end. ‘I Want To Be Degraded’ is sonorous, country fried gold, lo-fi deprecation and bedroom pop noir all in one; ‘The Armadillo Man’ is the most obvious bluesed-out blues track here, an outlander spent, a gunslinger ground down, haunted and taunted by those left behind in the dust.
But there are tracks that, like the elongated introduction, feed into a sense of rusted torment, reveling in the miserablist theatrics that the titular blues imbue. The instrumental title track burrows into a shimmering kaleidoscope of guitar meandering, a product of myriad witching hours playing with sound while the light flickers and fades. ‘The Moaning Song’ is a rumbling mantra, cracked and burnt, a primal purge, shouted into the screaming chasm of the world without and the emotional turmoil within. ‘You Know I’ve Been Ill’ follows suit, more robust and anthemic yet self-loathing, the organ and the slightly slack-jawed drawl driving giving the song a grandiose desperation.
Irma Vep has crafted an imperfect jewel with No Handshake Blues, a manifesto of onerous odes that revels in crystalline glory and kitchen-sink drudgery, shifting sands and creeping catharsis. Its quirks are irksome out of their place, but as a whole the album makes you work for your deliverance, which is as explosively euphoric as they come.