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Matthew Edwards And The Unfortunates
The Fates Ben Graham , November 20th, 2014 17:57

Has there ever been a more untrustworthy instrument than the accordion? Capable in the right hands of conjuring an exquisitely singular, bittersweet melancholy, it can instead instantly evoke the horrific jollity of a Bavarian beer hall in full swing or, far worse, a middle class "gypsy rock & roll" band with an expensively tattooed burlesque dancer and, not far beyond, all the myriad Sons of Mumford horribly foretold in the Biblical book of the Apocalypse. At least with a ukulele you know it's going to be shit, but the accordion; well, just tread carefully, that's all.

Happily, Isaac Bonnell, accordionist with the Unfortunates (and Edwards' previous band, the Music Lovers) handles his instrument with taste and restraint. Bonnell is part of a largely San Francisco-based line-up- alongside Sasha Bell (piano), cellist Adaiha McAdam-Somer, drummer Kristina Vukic and Jefferson Marshall on bass- that provides a surprisingly sympathetic setting for Birmingham-born Matthew Edwards' extremely English, drizzle-decked minor melodramas of failure, infidelity and regret. Perhaps the transatlantic nature of the group helps them avoid generic clichés and twee parochialism, even as Edwards treads the well-worn path of the urban romantic troubadour, heir to Brel and Gainsbourg, disillusioned but still dreaming (and drinking, and smoking), and determined, though impecunious, never to do or say a commonplace thing.  

That they're named after a B.S. Johnson novel should give some clues to the Unfortunates' outsider literary bent. Though rooted in memory and a specific time and place, Johnson's 1969 book was liberated from conventional kitchen sink memoir structures by being published in a box, unbound; though a first and last chapter were specified, the remaining 25 sections could be read in any order, thus cleaving to the random nature of actual memory and consciousness rather than the imposed narrative of the novel. So with The Fates: on one level a simple collection of introspective, autobiographical singer-songwriter love ballads, the album is abstract enough to attract producer Eric Drew Feldman (a former member of Captain Beefheart's Magic Band and Pere Ubu, who's also worked with PJ Harvey and Frank Black), and legendary experimental / improv guitarist Fred Frith (Henry Cow, Art Bears, Eno, Robert Wyatt etc.), who scrawls impressionistic electric lead notes over Edwards' reflective acoustic finger-picking.    

'Accident' opens with spare, reverb-blurred electric piano and brushed hi-hat, before Edwards' ominous, lugubrious baritone comes in, rich and dry as an oak-aged sherry and pushed well to the fore: "I think things were better before the accident". Alas, when the accordion enters it does break the sinister, seedy soul man mood somewhat, and your reviewer tensed involuntarily as the song tripped into an almost jaunty mid-section, recalling the Home Counties folk rock of the Broken Family Band rather than the lo-fi take on R&B's quiet storm the song nearly achieved. This is the album's sole serious misstep; it's a great shame that it occurs in what could have been its finest song. On 'Ghost', the descending cello recalls another obscure Anglo-American band of recent years, the great Outside Royalty, and via them the pensive glam rock of early, pre-Ziggy Bowie, Steve Harley's Cockney Rebel, Bill Nelson's Be-Bop Deluxe and that whole Velvet Goldmine of Biba-clad, self-consciously decadent, existential cabaret. When Edwards sings "I kissed a ghost", he may as well be singing of his love affair with such bygone eras, as The Fates is an album that is fatally backwards-looking; not in any blindly retro sense, but in its love for the very act of looking back, pining for the past merely because it is the past and seeking not to recreate it but to luxuriate in loss, and the paradoxical beauty and romance of age, distance and decay.

"Watch your tattoos fade over barstools serenade," Edwards croons on 'The English Blues', and the accordion at least has the good grace hear to maintain a creaking solemnity, descending like the narrow wooden stairs from bedsit door to gas meter. The cello scythes in like the wintry draught through the ill-fitting window frames, and the threadbare acoustic guitar is more of a trip hazard than a comfort against the cold underfoot. 'The Way To The Stars' suggests My Life Story and their fleapit Vegas affectations, as "I'm English, so English; ridiculously," Edwards admits, rising to a falsetto note before an unexpected squealing electric guitar solo barges in, presumably courtesy of Mr Frith, elbowing the accordion ruthlessly aside. "I'm sorry; so sorry," Edwards mumbles, before Frith resumes in an orgy of free-scale tapping and edgy feedback drones. Actually of course there's no call to apologise, as these vigorous interjections are entirely welcome; it's just rather incongruous, as though a maiden aunt had chopped out a line of coke in the midst of a high tea of china cups, baked scones and guava jelly. "Maybe we'll take the train to town; maybe we'll hawk ourselves around" from 'The Imposter' skewers the lifelong insecurity of the provincial dreamer; no matter how far they fulfill their ambition of "making it", they'll always suspect they're actually just faking it. Frith's dissonant guitar scree perfectly suggests the nagging anxiety beneath the elegantly constructed façade, the constant fear of one's gauche suburban origins being exposed and being laughed out of the cosmopolitan club by those who were born and bred to it.

Arch and affected, The Fates is less irritating and contrived than anything by the Divine Comedy, and less of a joyful pastiche than Simon Fisher Turner's records as the King Of Luxembourg. Darker than Stephen Duffy's Lilac Time and edgier than Animals That Swim, it never has the crackling intensity of the Tindersticks or the sheer venom of the Auteurs; but the Unfortunates nevertheless surely share a few scratchy early Scott Walker albums with all of the above. The final song, 'Before The Good Times' revisits the faux-jauntiness that interrupted the opening 'Accident', but acts as an effective tonic to the preceding gloom and tension, and the mood remains defiantly downbeat regardless. "Baskets of shoes in a railroad flat" is a wonderfully evocative and precise image in a sparsely narrated song, and both this and 'Accident' have the quality of a Scott Fitzgerald short, bookending the album with themes of how things were better before. "Once we were alone and had a place of our own, before the good times tore us apart," Edwards repeats, and on the last time around his voice breaks, and the final syllable disappears into a gasp, a whisper.

Affected or not, it comes over as a subtle moment of emotional sincerity, on an album that mostly masks itself in poses derived from cheap novels and black and white films, watched in the afternoons with the curtains drawn. Which isn't to suggest that Edwards is the Imposter he describes; merely that his wardrobe is inevitably second-hand. History, even someone else's, can lend character and depth if carried off with style and self-awareness. Like the accordion, it’s a tricky instrument to get right; but Edwards and his band of Unfortunates wear it well.