Shirley Lee - Winter Autumn Summer Spring - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Shirley Lee - Winter Autumn Summer Spring

by Al Brown Rating:6 Release Date:2011-06-13

I've had this one sitting on my desk for almost a month, staring at me, making me feel guilty with its very existence. The reasons for the procrastination and guilt are many. Number one: it's a double album, and I've never met a double album that wasn't at least a little bit up its own arse. Secondly, it's a sort of concept album, with half of disc one representing winter, half autumn, and the same arrangement for summer and spring on disc two. Again, it takes something special to create a concept album that transcends the general naffness of concept albums, and the changing seasons may be a worn-out subject for such an odyssey. More guilt comes from never having heard of Shirley Lee, but knowing that quite a few friends really like him, and his old band, Spearmint. How did I miss Spearmint? I was obsessed with slightly weedy Britpop bands in '98 - they should have been my absolute faves.

Lee knows his way around a self-deprecating one-liner: "I think about death/ Because that's what men think about" is the opening line. Just to ram the point home, second track, 'Death' contains such life-affirming couplets as: "Life is just a stay of execution/ Death is just taking our heads out of the sand". The mellow half-bossa-nova, half-Britpop backing keeps you from slashing your wrists.

Shirley's thin, Marlboro-cracked voice only really has two settings: talking, and singing, although his singing voice is really somewhere between talking and singing, and it's not always that engaging, particularly after 30-odd tracks. From a personal perspective; I find his similarity to the lead vocalist from The Levellers slightly disturbing: I keep getting flashbacks of my 14-year-old self in a field pretending I give a fuck about solar power to a girl in a tie-dye t-shirt.

Instrumentally, the record is mainly predictable (save a few songs, like the unexpected electro sojourn of 'Winter Light', the heartfelt spoken word tribute 'An Old Cricketer (For John Peel)'). Even when ploughing familiar furrows, it's much more subtle than might be expected from an ex-Britpopper. Waves of synth and strings break gently over many tracks; there's subtle use of field recordings (waves and radio broadcasts) and guitars and vocals sound warm and natural - the way analog and digital instruments meld seamlessly is undoubtedly one of this album's greatest achievements.

A lot of tracks here ('Maidenhead', 'Beachy Head', 'Photograph', 'Passing Lights') are more sketches than fully fledged songs, and while they're pretty enough, they're surely getting skipped-past after the first couple of listens. Lyrics seem largely autobiographical: a lot of reminiscences and thoughts about mortality "Everybody's happy in the photograph uh-uh/ Looking like they're going to live forever" he sings in 'Photograph'. Occasionally it gets a bit wearing, but 'We Will Never Be This Young Again' hits the spot with its beautiful, minimal arrangement and sincere lyrics which are all the more striking given proper space to breathe.

Unfortunately the most obvious general flaw is the lack of hooks and moments of genuine pop brilliance. As a mood piece (or several) it's a subtle exercise that could enthral those with a slightly above-average attention span, but for me it lacks anything to really get your teeth into: I want a killer chorus; a big fuck-off mountain towering above pleasant rolling hills.

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