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I Am Kloot
Sky At Night Mick Middles , July 13th, 2010 13:17

Summer 1985. A singer is trying to find the heart of his own song. He twists, this way and that...physically too, almost ripping the neck from his acoustic guitar. He is a busker, lost in the shuffle of Hyde market in Cheshire. The locals, unpretentious and non-plussed, hurry past, casting barely a glance. The songs are hardly in the busker norm. They are hauntingly simplistic observations of a northern mundanity. Wry, dry, bustling with visions that belie his tender years.

The singer is a teenage John Bramwell. Clad in tartan trousers, guitar angled downwards, he holds a precocious glint in his eye. In his 'other' musicianly vocation, he is the lead singer of Ignition, a band of the vicinity for sure, but steely and wise enough to already grab attention from Tony Fletcher's Jamming magazine in London. "A mod band for the future", someone calls them, though Bramwell seems more at home here, performing on the flagstones as people buy mincemeat, broken biscuits, Dr Martens boots and Harrington jackets. Somehow, his fiery lyrics appear match the leaden skies, austere nicotine-lined pubs and market stalls. Nevertheless, a local management company, lead by the studious Sandy Gort, attempt to take Ignition to a higher level, pushing them into the burgeoning Manchester scene, with support spots at The International and The Boardwalk.

But the band dynamic does not encourage the individualism within Bramwell's songs. He needs musicians to expand his vision... add depth and field and darkness. Soon Ignition will splinter into two units. The band, the other band members, adopting the name Ambitious Beggars, would hover in the locale for a year or so. Meanwhile the departing Johnny Bramwell would take up the persona, 'Johnny Dangerously'. Under the guiding light of his key musical statement, the simplistic, arresting 'Back and Blue', Dangerously would map himself into cultish appeal as the thunder of Madchester began to take hold of the media. At odds with the Zeitgeist - who needed a singer-songwriter in 1989? - Dangerously would tread boards with a hoist of ignored Mancunian talent, often performing at the Legendary Manchester Busker events, alongside the likes of Steve Coogan, Henry Normal, Guy Garvey, George Borowski, Caroline Aherne, and many more.

He begged fame. Encountering him in an Italian restaurant in Marple, Cheshire, one eve, he told me: "One day you'll write a book about me." I didn't doubt that, well, somebody would, even if Johnny Dangerously's lonesome troubadour act was merely treading water, despite exceptional releases - 'You, Me and the Alarm Clock', on Paula Greenwood's Playtime Records and an unlikely stint as a presenter on Granada Yoof TV. "I thought he would be the new John Lennon NOT the new Matthew Corbett..." stated a now distant Sandy Gort.

It was only when Bramwell, lost and ingloriously aloof, discovered too extraordinary musicians - Peter Jobson and Andy Hargreaves - and formed I Am Kloot at the star of the new millennium, that his song writing found its true artistic potential. Incredibly, Jobson and Hargreaves, were unselfish enough not to impinge on the rare heart of those songs, but used their advanced musicality to add depth and darkness...only then did the songs of John Bramwell attain that unworldly psyche on might have previously associated with, say 'Astral Weeks'. I do not make that absurd comparison lightly. For the 23-year-old genius that was the Van Morrison of Astral Weeks genius, new how to fold local culture into a song and make it seem truly universal. John Bramwell may not have the Celtic soul ethic... but those northern images and passions nod directly to old dark days at Hyde market... funny how successful they have been in various unfashionable parts of Europe.

Well... everybody is saying the same thing. Every fan. Every reviewer. Every radio DJ. I Am Kloot's Sky at Night is, finally, their breakthrough moment... their Seldom Seen Kid... their moment in the light; a middle-aged triumph that might sit evenly with Elbow, Doves, The Hold Steady and Wilco. Is this to be their year? The signs are there and, Sky at Night is a curiously retrospective record that seems to cherry pick moments, and even songs - 'Northern Sky' and 'Proof' are remade, remodelled - that glimmer from the band's back catalogue. Not that this isn't a completely new affair. It is and it has been so lovingly crafted by producers Guy Garvey and Craig Potter that one can only think of 2010... the year of Kloot.

The Elbow guys are so unselfish, in fact, that they have delayed their all important follow up to The Seldom Seen Kid to finish production on this. How much we and Kloot owe them for that? For this is an album drenched in atmosphere. It is also the most coherent I Am Kloot album to date. One recurring criticism has been that Kloot albums, given the sheer disparate nature of song writing that sways from torch-jazz to indie-trounce, from Dylanesque poetic sways to folkish deliveries, have often seemed rather uneven. I would agree, though all are shot with flashes of blinding brilliance. (In particular I refer to the frustrating unevenness that slightly flawed their previous album, Gods and Monsters. It was a curious album that seemed at once to intensify the love felt for this band by long-term admirers while pushing further away from the hearts of most reviewers. I must add a small but, I feel, significant scenario here. During a fleeting moment I reviewed the album for the Observer Music Monthly, proudly gifting it five star status. In their infinite Camden Town wisdom, the editors of that curious organ actually downgraded it to three stars. When challenged on this, they responded with "...well it's too northern for our readers." A huge compliment, perhaps. Odd though, to note The Observer gifting a whole page to Kloot immediately prior to the new release. Times change.

However, I do concur with the notion that previous Kloot albums have always existed as a collection of individual moments, rather than an album length of flow or feel. The songs of 'Sky at Night' are clustered, like stars perhaps, glittering away in a lush, dark velvet production that unifies this LP, even carefully guiding the older songs into a new state of evocative power. This process has taken a great deal of time and patience, not least by Kloot Themselves, It is now 15 months since I last met Bramwell, following a sound check for a solo show in Derby. Even at that point Kloot - solo shows aside - Kloot were locked in the painstaking final elements of Sky at Night, locked in Stockport's Moulah Rouge and Elbow's Blueprint in Salford.

"It is," he said, "impossible to rush this one... we are finally getting there." He told me this over a couple of pints in Derby and that, too, seemed significant. For alcohol runs through these songs, through Bramwell's maturing vision like the blood in his veins. In places this is obvious: "Do you fancy a drink, I know a place, a place called 'the brink', we could go there" he offers at the start of, well obviously, 'To the Brink'. A darkened alcohol-tale that is driven into unworldliness by a lush orchestration - it's hard not to glimpse to The Seldom Seen Kid in this instance. But care has been taken by Garvey and Potter not to impose their now celebrated orchestral depth too heavily. On 'Fingerprints', 'It's Just the Night' and 'Radiation' in particular, the simplistic vision of that precocious boy with his guitar is duly allowed freedom to meander.

In truth, that is just one element of I Am Kloot. It is true that, if I close my eyes, I still see the tartan-trousered oik attempting to connect with the lost market shoppers of Hyde. The full presence of I Am Kloot Always added significantly to that. But only here, now, do we see a delicate perfection. Whether it will unleash the dizzying chaos of celebrity upon them, only time will tell. Part of me... and part of most Kloot aficionados, rather selfishly hopes that it doesn't. I am also unsure if John Bramwell, despite the 25 year ferocity of his ambition, could ever be truly comfortable in the clatter of mass attention. He deserves it... so much. But something would be lost. At the heart of Kloot lies a lonely scream. That's the paradox and the reason - Observer editors take note - that they are loved with such rare intensity. Not too northern at all. Just unique.