The name, Morton Valence, and the sleeve, a seedy tribute to Bonnie and Clyde, seem to suggest this album might be a piece of Americana re-imagined in the English suburbs. However, just a cursory spin of the album dismisses any such foolish notions. Morton Valence make beautiful, charming, brittle pop music. It’s not shiny, homogenised pop designed by committee for the charts as we know it but gorgeous, outsider pop; catchy, inventive, full of delightful arrangements, tunes and shades of dark and light. Like Saint Etienne, Black Box Recorder, The Auteurs, the Jesus and Mary Chain, Pulp and Tindersticks, all of whose influence can be felt on this album, Morton Valence understand the complex pleasures of the simple pop song and its structures and strictures. Over thirteen delightful, interlinked songs they tell the tale of two protagonists, ‘an unlikely couple’ who ‘did believe in lust at first sight’. Most of the songs stand up well on their own as lovely pocket symphonies but sound even better as part of a whole as the story of Bob and Veronica unravels before our eyes. Songs fade or fall into one another, the atmospheres and moods change and there’s a haunting beauty to this records collision of gorgeous music and the lyrical sense of unease.
‘Veronica’s Revenge (Continued)’ is a sparse opener, radio voices, a heavily reverb soaked guitar, heartbeat drums and that crystal-clear voice hanging over the mix telling us ‘All I wanted was a little revenge’. Over whom it isn’t clear but the threat hangs there ominously. ‘Chandelier’ is so beautiful, the music box simplicity of the tune buoyed by the soaring melodies and female-male voices playing off and against one another in a breathtaking fashion. ‘Sequin Smile’ has a ominous introduction and a grittier sound with the distorted guitar notes hanging like a threat in the air, while the vocals sound equally angelic and terrifying, racking up the tension. When she sings ‘Whispering in my ear / Turn the music on / I’ll show you the sweetest thing’ I feel like screaming to no one in particular, ‘don’t listen, run, run for your life’. ‘Ordinary Pleasure’ has a curious structure, all odd rhythms, soaring, disembodied sounds and a lovely organ melting into a retro-futurist dance number. It begins as an ode to dancing with its opening line, ‘We like to boogie’ before giving way to the reality that Bob and Veronica are outsiders, caustically observing from the sidelines that
Everyone looks funny
Jerking around the dance floor
Before their observations become darker with the thought that
People are funny
They make you laugh
Then they disappoint you.
The songs sears and soars with a bruised male voice repeating the line, ‘Let it rain all over me’ and never has being in a crowd sounded so lonely or desperate.
‘John Young’ is brooding and lugubrious with an eerie feel matched by sweet melodies and a sense of dark drama, combining discordant and heavenly backing vocals in a compelling and unsettling mix.
‘Hang It On The Wall’ is full of battered grace, a gentle swell of keyboards and a wracked, lone male voice opening the song before it grows into a bruisingly beautiful song. It’s all darkness and light, sweeping and swirling as it builds up the intensity of sound as it recalls the tale of a disintegrating relationship and the failed attempts to cover up the cracks. It’s utterly sublime, almost unbearably so, and the most wonderful song that I’ve heard in a long time.
‘Nobody Understands’ is a scuffed, broken orchestral song, very understated, nightmarish but seductive and charming. The quiet verses give way to passages full of short intensity. ‘Falling Down The Stairs’ has a more breathy, airy feel but the lightness of touch contained within the music is brought into sharp contrast by the opening line, ‘I’ve been falling down the stairs of love again’ as Morton Valence come over like an older, wiser, battered Young Marble Giants before locking into an awesome groove. ‘Bob, Veronica and some Crickets’ is curious and sweet, phased sounds and wavering, treated vocals revelling in the mundane and every day – buses, fruit machines – like a (sub)urban Nancy and Lee. Short and pretty, and it does have crickets just in case you were wondering!
‘I must Go’ starts with that classic drum beat – dum, dum, dum – chah – you know the one; ‘Be my Baby’, ‘Just like Honey’, and still manages to sound fresh as Morton Valence build a lovely song out of such a simple, instantly recognisable rhythm. It begins in such a restrained manner, just those drums, bass, organ and two contrasting voices, the male full of loss and pain, the female detached and hurt. Then the trumpet comes in, a plaintive call heralding the end of an uneasy cordiality before things erupt in chaos and rage. It’s an intense, claustrophobic sound like being sucked into a whirlpool, all threats of violence and incoherent anger, before it collapses in on itself, too weary or wounded to continue. Brutal and terrifying and completely exhilarating. ‘Disco’ is just a brief interlude that drifts on from the previous song, a continuation of the descent into hell. Respite of a sort comes with the serene but disturbing lullaby, ‘Go To Sleep’, full of images of drowning and dreaming. Things may not have turned out well for Bob and Veronica, and, indeed it’s only the female voice that remains at the end.
Bob and Veronica Ride Again is an intense, compelling piece of pop-art (the album comes with a novella), a real emotional rollercoaster perfectly executed. There are barbs and punches wrapped in honeycoated perfect pop tunes that never fail to hit the mark, knocking me flat out at the sheer brilliance of this gem of an album that demands not only to be played from start to finish but listened to as a whole over and over again. Bob and Veronica may not believe in love at first sight but I fell in love with this album at first hearing and I’m falling deeper and deeper into its grubby, beautiful clutches.