The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Album Of The Week

Songs In The Wonky Of Life: Audiobooks’ Now! (In A Minute)
Patrick Clarke , November 1st, 2018 07:40

Is it the deep wonky weirdness that makes them amazing, or is it just that Evangeline Ling and David Wrench are two extraordinary musicians having a brilliant time? Either way, this debut album is a beautiful batshit triumph

I saw Audiobooks at their first ever gig, a support slot at Heavenly Records’ colossally fun three-day party in Hebden Bridge this February, and ever since then I’ve known that it’s their inherent awkwardness and deep wonky weirdness that makes them amazing. That gig was a hot mess. It was also stratospherically brilliant. Songwriter, vocalist and saxophonist Evangeline Ling was in a Cossack hat, leaping and yelping with anxious energy. Her bandmate David Wrench was stood looming in the midst of a wall of synthesizers, his eyes fixed with intense, almost maniacal concentration, his hair long, white and shimmering against his jet-black clothes. Visually they were a clash, and musically too, lurching from wicked juddering industrial electro to freewheeling avant-jazz, with extended spoken-word passages told in multiple voices and the occasional moment of raw searing tenderness.

Ling and Wrench’s opposing energies clatter against each other, never allowing their art – and by extension, their audience – to settle. As soon as they find a groove they lurch straight out of it, sprawling in search of another. I’ve now seen them play live a number of times, and rather than their sound gelling it has become clumsier still. Wrench has started stepping out from his synths and taking to the guitar, whereupon they literally, physically clash, moshing and jostling each other for centre stage like squabbling children. They’ve become even messier, and even more brilliant.

Records began to emerge, each a wild departure from the last. First there was the Gothenburg EP. Its title track is a heaving, muddy masterpiece, the band at their most terrifying, Ling’s voice distorted into a haunting, ethereal growl over a quaking electronic stomp. Backing it are two hectic spoken-word stories, the bonkers ‘Beefy Danny’ and the even more bonkers ‘Kars’, and the staggeringly beautiful ballad ‘Pebbles’. Then there was ‘Hot Salt’, a pumping bastardisation of The Human League’s ‘Don’t You Want Me’ with a launching electro-pop chorus, and after that the weird and drifting ‘Mother Hen’. ‘Dance Your Life Away’ was somewhere between them all, Ling screaming an unhinged and manic free-association explosion over Wrench’s relentless keyboard noodling. Now, at last, we have their debut album, Now! (In A Minute).

This album, like Audiobooks’ gigs, is all over the place. With the singles, it’s easy to overlook just how boldly they clash with each other, but when placed side by side (‘Mother Hen’, ‘Pebbles’, ‘Hot Salt’ and ‘Dance Your Life Away’ all feature on the LP), along with nine other vastly divergent songs, the result is a headspinning record. Audiobooks thrive on their own awkwardness, they seize the unknown and the possibilities it presents – what can be made from that mix of anxiety, confusion and excitement that occurs when you know you can do something incredible, but have no idea what form it’ll take. Now! (In A Minute) encapsulates this: it is a scatterbrained, chaotic mishmash of good ideas jostling for attention. It recalls the brilliant bedlam of their live shows, and yet sounds completely different to them.

Even in terms of its structure, this is a wonky, awkward record. Audiobooks’ most potent weapons are their third person spoken-word pieces. There is nothing as completely feral as the Gothenburg EP’s ‘Kars’ and ‘Beefy Danny’, but in ‘Grandma Jimmy’ and ‘Call Of Duty Free’ there are two staggeringly immersive pieces of perplexing, thrilling storytelling – in the wild eccentric synths as much as in Ling’s winding narrative. The more usual approach would be to position these twin peaks apart from each other, to bookend the album or intensify its momentum at points when it might sag, but here the two are spaced just one track apart – either side of the freewheeling ‘Dance Your Life Away’ – around the record’s middle. The result is that as an album, Now! (In A Minute) has this bonkers middle section, before and after which the rest of the record contrasts even more starkly – a juxtaposition within a record of juxtapositions.

In the band’s lyrics, too, comes an embrace of the awkward. Take gormless protagonist Lewis on ‘Call Of Duty Free’, fleshed out as a Libertines-listening, airport-cologne wearing fool before his attempt at a sexy call to his girlfriend is accidentally played to her entire family via their car’s bluetooth speakers. Ling drawls, her voice distorted and lowered to match Lewis’: “Hey, chicken, I wanna squeeeeze ya tight…” as the whirling synths reach a sickly pitch. It’s toe-curling and hilarious, setting Lewis up for his fall with mischievous glee.

This is an intense record, sure, but there are a lot of intense records. Many of them are incredibly dull. What sets this apart is that it is not only intense, sometimes deeply emotional, angry or plain unhinged, but on occasion very witty too. It does not treat the comic with any more or less reverence than it does the tragic. There’s a growing number of bands in the left-field who incorporate the ridiculous along with the sublime – Confidence Man, Chai and The International Teachers of Pop, for example – but none with quite so much deftness and depth as Audiobooks. Take ‘Dealing With Hoarders’, for example. Instrumentally it’s the record’s most turbulent moment, based around a looping hurricane of electronics, and Ling is at her most raging, riding the quaking instrumental as she explores wild tangents. It’s tempestuous, almost frightening to listen to, its focus shifting every millisecond, but amid Ling’s fury there’s room for couplets like “Easyjet / You’re making my head sweat!” and the occasional diss: “She wears pink lipstick / She loves Grayson Perry / And she always… talks… SHIT!”

This is yet another example of Audiobooks’ wonky approach to making music. They throw everything at this record, unconcerned with whether or not it needs to fit. Structure and flow are secondary concerns, their attentions are focused on an explosion of ideas; often they’ve not even followed one through to its conclusion before the record yanks another into view. There is joy, sadness, anger, disdain, sordidness and apathy here, there are pop bangers, avant-garde electro wigouts, heaving punk songs and meandering short stories. There is a coughing fit on ‘Spooky Algorithms’, and you can hear them falling about laughing at their own ridiculousness before ‘Hot Salt’. To take the wider picture, they’re never sure exactly what sort of band they are, and never all that bothered about finding an answer. They embrace the fact that they don’t fit, and run with the possibilities of embracing your own awkwardness.

Yet there must be something that ties this album together. It’s messy, but it’s not a mess. It’s all over the place, constantly shooting one way or another, but you’re on board with them wherever it is they’re going. In other hands an album as disparate and scattershot as this would fall flat, its moments of brilliance muddied by misfires. This is not one of those records. Perhaps the simple reason why is that Ling and Wrench are two extraordinarily gifted individuals. Wrench’s brilliance as a producer, mixer and solo musician has been heralded by many, and though Ling is a relative newcomer, her short time in Audiobooks has proven her to be similarly talented. This record is the product of these two talents combining, unconcerned with how much it might jar.

The only thing, then, that the songs on Now! (In A Minute) all have in common is their quality. As if to cement that fact, the band close it with ‘Pebbles’, the sparsest, most concentrated, most powerful piece of the lot. Here Ling shows an unmeasurable melodramatic depth, her voice powerful in its fragility. Wrench’s keys are icy and widescreen, cold, stark and lifeless but somehow the perfect complement to his bandmate’s despair. Dismiss their weirdness, their awkwardness and their haphazardness at your peril – Audiobooks are a band of stratospheric ability, a band to be adored.