A peculiar blend of orchestral pop and ambient experimentation, Left With Pictures is a London-based trio with plenty of support from big names in the music world; BBC Radio 6 Music’s Gideon Coe and Lauren Laverne have given them airplay, whilst Drowned in Sound described 2009 album Beyond Our Means as ‘the most heartwarming album of the year’. Their third album, Afterlife, isn’t so personal, less heartwarming and more expansive, as it attempts to inject abstract musical devices into what is otherwise essentially folk-pop. It’s an intriguing record, albeit one that doesn’t always achieve its aims.
One of the most noticeable facts about this LP is that it is Left With Pictures’ first in five years. What the band has been up to in that time is unclear, with the album straying from their previous sound to a certain extent but equally holding its cards close to its chest for most of its duration. Beginning with an intense, abstract overture of synth sounds, strings and some fascinating percussion, the album shows promise from the start, but often fails to deliver as it repeatedly reverts to a frustratingly familiar template.
‘I make a bloody mess of all I do these days’ bemoans lead singer Stuart Barter as the very basic production and his own distinctly English accent allow him to perform with untainted honesty and affecting insecurity on second track Bloody Mess. Barter’s performances are often what make or break the songs on this record: sometimes his tender vocals add an unexpected sensitivity to bold, expansive pieces, and yet elsewhere he fails to carry the weight of the band’s powerful instrumentation. Notable examples include Last Man On Earth and The Night Watch, for which a darker, grittier voice would be more suited. One cannot help but imagine Nick Cave or Mark Lanegan holding up these admittedly well-written tracks better (though one must concede that is a high target to reach, and one the band itself has not set).
Mid-album track Who’s There acts as a kind of interval between two acts. It is another abstract, instrumental piece, and a powerful one at that. However what follows is very much more of what had preceded it, which is a disappointment. Nonetheless there are gems throughout the album that shine brightly amidst some arguably formulaic and uninspired songwriting.
Long Lane is a track that plods along without any kind of real structure, and yet it grows on the listener almost uncontrollably and with an impressive lack of effort. The Howling couldn’t be more different; it is big, dramatic and dark, haunting perhaps, and culminates in an almighty finale, proving that this band works best when it defies expectations.
Afterlife is ultimately an unconvincing record, though not one without its charms. As Left With Pictures depart from alternative pop sounds and aim towards an altogether more abstract direction one cannot do anything but praise their innovation, even if it doesn’t always come off as well as one would hope. Predictable as some of this record may be, its more daring moments justify sticking it out ‘til the end.