Darkness Into Light  | Album Review by Mike Davies / Folking.Com  (03.05.2020)

A Birmingham singer-songwriter, pianist and music teacher, Darkness Into Light is Eleanor’s second album, the first since her debut (as Eleanor Williams) ten years ago and, recorded in her living room, was, as she says in the notes, written to help her recover from severe post-natal depression and post-natal psychosis. She describes it as documenting her “journey from mental illness to mental health, from deep sadness to overwhelming joy and gratitude, from intense darkness to light”. It’s one that should be heard, not just because of the subject matter and how it can help those who have experienced or are experiencing the same problems, but because it’s also bloody good.

It’s short, with seven of the twelve songs under two minutes, but the quality outstrips the width. Sat at the piano, she opens with ‘Growing Up To Late’ liltingly singing “My heart is full of anger/My head is full of hate/My soul is full of anguish” on a number about seeking recovery (“I’ve been to the bottom/And now I have to wait/For courage to find me”) that has a touch of old music hall ballads about it. That retro sensibility runs throughout and in places I’m reminded of Louise Jordan, Katy Bennett and, at times even Kate Bush, especially on second track, the brief ‘I’m Sorry’ (“I’m sorry I didn’t look after myself /I’m sorry I made the wrong call/I’m sorry my ego made us both suffer”) where she vows “I’m going to grow love in my heart…For you “Thank you for showing me where I went wrong”.

The piano takes on slightly deeper notes with the metaphorical jaunty swayalong ‘My Bird’ (“My bird has not had space to grow/To laugh and to play and to sing/My bird has been frightened and scared/For I’ve been focusing on the wrong things”) as the clouds of depression part and she sings “now I can see the sun/Catch a glimpse of the rays in the sky/I know what I have to do now/To make sure that my bird learns to fly”.

Clocking just 55 seconds ‘You Don’t Understand’ addresses the problem of those whom, with the best intentions, offer answers without understanding the nature of the question as she says “What was right for you/Might not be right for me… Please don’t try to fix me/Don’t treat me like a fool/The problems I encountered/Needed completely different tools”. The simple melody of ‘Lost Time’ and then the bouncy 52-second galumph of ‘Easy To Love’ then return attention to those who have suffered around her, though here the focus seems to be her marriage, the former with another promise to make things better and “make life right for you” and the realisation that “Every moment is precious”, and the latter an observation that “It’s easy to love when everything’s bright” set against the question “Can you still sing when despair is so near?”

The again brief ‘I’ve Learnt This Lesson Before’ is a more ruminative interlude that touches on past incidence of “Pretending that I’m someone else/So terrified and full of fear/So deeply insecure”, self-examination continuing with the resolve of the arms-linked sway of ‘I Can Change The End Of This Song’, a determination not to look back into the abyss but to “choose life/To battle the strife/To put on my armour and fight the good fight” and search out shoots of green and, continuing the imagery, “turn over a brand new leaf” and “grow t’ward the light”.

At just over three minutes, with a church-like piano air and sung with soft intimacy, ‘Buried In My Heart’ is the longest track and again a song about finding the inner strength within to rise out of the black hole and bury the anger and pain deep in the ground.

She returns to a lighter vocal and melodic frame with ‘The Spaces Between’, a song about being caught between, as she puts it, the open sky and the raging sea, “between who I am/And who I want to be”, hovering between despair of feeling helpless in the grip of panic and “Punishing myself/To prove to others I was brave” and the realisation of her child’s needs and that “all I should have cared about/Was keeping you safe”.

It ends with catharsis and resolution as, on the rolling piano pattern of ‘Time To Let Go’, she sings how it’s time to “let peace come to me” and accepting the wisdom that “I can’t change what’s past/But I can change what can be/And live happily with you, your father and me”, finally closing with the moving epiphany of ‘Surrounded By Love’, the piano striking a salvational anthemic note as she sings “I’ve not been raising you/You’ve been raising me/Into the mother/I didn’t know I could be”, an ode to unconditional love and the reassurance that “after the storm/There came a rainbow”, and that to be kind to others we first have to be kind to ourselves, to love others, we must first love ourselves and to believe that “even when life/Feels as cold as the night/Fear not for the stars/Will soon be in sight”.

The musical brightness belying the emotional struggles that songs recount, Darkness Into Light is both a courageous album in the exposure of the nerve endings and an uplifting one that not only charts a personal recovery but offers inspiration to others who may be in the same place. Given the nature of the arrangements and the performance, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine this as a one-woman staged musical. In her notes Dattani concludes “For those suffering out there, I want you to know that you will get better, your child loves you, nothing is irredeemable, and what lies for you at the end of this tunnel (which you don’t ever believe will end) is more beautiful than you can ever imagine in your wildest dreams. Don’t give up. You and your child are connected by a love greater than you know and one day you will feel it in every part of your being.” Take it to your heart.

Awake Night | Album Review by Oliver Ardity (01.03.2015)

"I’ve been following Marley Butler’s art-pop explorations for some years now; he’s always made interesting creative choices, but Awake Nightpresents the most radical change I’ve heard in his creative practice. The arrangements of these three pieces are built around bowed strings, embellished by tuned percussion in ‘Ruminate’ and ‘Knowing Alone’, electronic beats and vocals in ‘Toss and Turn’, and piano in ‘Knowing Alone’. The string writing is assured, and exploits the resources effectively, although the material is recognisably from the same stable as Butler’s existing oeuvre, and it’s easy enough to imagine it arranged for his more accustomed instrumental forces. ‘Knowing Alone’ sounds most specifically a composition for these instruments, but in all three pieces the listeners attention is effectively re-focussed by the novelty of the approach. As tonal and as pellucid as ever, Butler creates intimate spaces into which he places ideas of great clarity and precision, their simplicity a token of their bounded ambition; there are no grandiose pretensions here, and in consequence the sense is one of creative goals completely realised. An unmistakeable moment of real artistic growth, and of gracile beauty."

A Saffron History | Album Review by Oliver Ardity (09.08.2012)

"Marley Butler is given to doing clever things musically, but the focus of his cleverness is usually in his manipulation of atmosphere, or in the way he exploits the symbology of pop music to access meanings beyond its usual compass. ‘1990’, the opening cut of A Saffron History, is positively mathy, with its initial riff built from four bars of 4/4 phrased as four of 7/8 plus one of 2/4, driven along by the soulful and technically adept drumming of Cedric Monzali, who provided the main element of muscular musicianly expression on Butler’s recent Opposites. That the piece also encompasses the opposite rhythmic pole before it’s done should come as no surprise to followers of Butler’s work, which is creatively consistent in its treatment of performative skill as one aesthetic effect among many. The atmosphere of this album is a light and airy one, not always founded in conventional musical values, but never abrasive or off-putting. It has moments of nostalgia, most notably in ‘It Ain’t Over Till The Children Sing’, arising through the superimposition of playground sounds on a gentle vocal ambience and water noises, and the use of a music-box, but this comes across more as an invocation of distance than a sense of loss. It’s more hypnagogic than hauntological, but I hear this music as too clear and limpid, too precisely stated, to sit comfortably in either of those camps. It is concerned with very specific times and places, rather than the a-geographic, a-historical cosmopolitanism that informs much music of the online era, usually to its detriment. Butler appreciates the beauty of a violin’s lower register, or of a human voice, and is comfortable valuing them as sounds created on particular occasions by particular musicians; he doesn’t need to trawl the recent past for roots like hipsters do in London, Los Angeles and New York, because he comes from Derby via Wolverhampton, places which have not yet succumbed to the semantic chasm of over-signification. This music (thanks in large part to his excellent collaborators) is all about sound, and the profound beauty thereof."

Opposites | Album Review by Oliver Ardity (05.07.2012)

Like all Entr’acte releases, Opposites arrives in a hermetically perfect, vacuum sealed package, simple metallic grey plastic with one colour printing in the exact same typeface and layout as the rest of their catalogue. There is something disturbing about its severity and its integrity; I have never been so reluctant to open an album sent to me for review, and had I been able to download the tracks I probably wouldn’t have. In the end I took a scalpel to it, and attempted to open it as subtly as possible, from the back, but ended up scoring a very visible line across the front as well. This moment of rupture inevitably contributes to the readings of the work, but it seems mostly representative of the irruption of the distributor’s agenda into the music, given that Marley Starskey Butler did not design the packaging, and probably didn’t have a relationship with Entr’acte when he recorded it (in 2009). To restore some expressive urgency to the physical presentation, the album is distributed with a colour postcard: it appears to show a very young Butler on the front step of a modest house, probably in the early to mid 90s, smiling, but slightly slumped, slightly exasperated, as if to say ‘surely you’re not taking another photo?’

This certainly seems to relate directly to the musical contents of the package, which sample (at length) what sounds like the author’s childhood. Memory and nostalgia figure prominently in the most readily available interpretations of the album, with very specific field recordings of informal, demotic speech, rendered distant by processing, their relationship to the other sounds in the tracks, the reverberant spaces they are positioned in, and presumably by their own character as audio snapshots. They are contextualised in fields of simple loops, acoustic instrumental motifs, and electronic sounds, all originated and manipulated by Butler himself. The one exception is the drum part on ‘Papa’, the opening track, an improvisation of some subtlety and commitment, performed by Cedric Monzali. Whether this was laid down in response to a completed track, or if Butler responded to the drums in his composition, there is a complex and meaningful relationship between the dynamics and timbres of the improvisation and the sounds that surround it. Elsewhere the approach is less ‘musicianly’, and more compositional, with an approach that is both collagist and narrative. Some tracks are built to wind around a single central element, and others are more episodic, most notably ‘21 Opposites’. In ‘Rowlands Avenue’, against the laughter of a child that we are clearly invited to identify as Butler, simultaneous guitar loops begin to interfere with one another, generating jarring dissonances, before they fall into silence, and the child goes on to discuss the conceptual possibilities of the sandwich (‘you can put vegetables in a sandwich, but… in fact, nah… not, not vegetables…’)

Butler states explicitly (on its Bandcamp page) that Opposites was made while he ‘was thinking a lot about the notion of opposites and how they need each other to exist … [he] wanted to put together opposing sounds’. I suspect he was analysing his practice, rather than working programmatically, if only because I doubt the resulting work would have sounded this compelling in the latter case. He talks about giving painful experiences a positive valuation, and exploring the paradox or contradiction of positive experiences co-existing with negative ones ‘like a blanket of nails’. This is consistent with the ongoing relationship with his own past represented in the speech recordings, and in the accompanying postcard, although there are few notes of dissonance there, and pain really only enters the picture at a well anaesthetised remove, sublimed into melancholy or a vague sense of regret. As far as the overt investigation of the ‘notion of opposites’ is concerned, it’s harder to read that out of these sounds. A principal difficulty is that sounds do not have literal opposites, although any categoric system is dualistic; so sounds can be categorised in pairs like ‘natural/ artificial’, ‘acoustic/ electronic’, ‘loud/ quiet’, ‘sonorous/ keening’ or whatever, but there are no stark contrasts in this album to make such oppositions seem central to its meanings. Consonant harmonies are not juxtaposed to harsh dissonances, very quiet passages to very loud ones, or dense textures to open ones. Acoustic sounds often rub shoulders with electronic ones, and recordings of informal speech with conventionally musical elements, but such combinations are too commonplace to clash or jar.

What we have instead is a mellow, moody representation of personal reflection and memory, a moving and evocative series of meditations on the relationship of the past to the present, and of history to geography – as evidenced in titles like ‘Rowlands Avenue’ and ‘Arnold Southfield’. The cyclicity of much of the musical material, and its episodic structures, point to the kinds of dream-like narrative that are readily constructed from personal experience, in contrast to the closures and apotheoses of conventional songwriting’s more contrived scenarios. There are subtle and open-ended experiences to be had from this music; nostalgia is certainly a part of it, but it is fruitfully ambiguous, inviting as personal a response as the kinds of introspection it evokes. The music is never ambient in the sense of lacking rhythm or structure, but it evokes atmospheres as much as it utters any statements or tells any stories. I’m unable to hear how Opposites fulfills Butler’s stated creative intentions: it certainly doesn’t represent the concept of ‘opposites’ in any way that I could decode. But as an album, taken on its merits, it’s a remarkably powerful and absorbing essay in the aesthetics of memory, that marshals an array of sonic resources with great sensitivity, intelligence and skill.

Sagan Lane | Funambule | Album Review by Oliver Ardity (09.04.2011)

Most of the tracks on this album are equipped with a skeleton of strummed guitar or programmed beats, although a couple are composed of invertebrate electronic ambience. But when the beats are hard, as on ‘Transience’, the mood is one of gentle contemplation; even a track like ‘Mikodeau’, which is just vocals and guitar, sounds very much of a piece with ‘Standover’, which is a slab of fluffy electronica with a spoken French vocal. For me, this collection of recordings is a good argument for the survival of the album format: a series of recorded works, conceived under some unifying creative condition, and presented together as a single entity, has a value that is greater than the sum of a playlist. These tunes present a diversity of textures and stylistic features, but the whole sounds unified and consistent.

The term ‘ambient’ will suggest something gentle to most people: that’s an appropriate assumption here, as although some tracks are strange or eerie, their weirdness is of a non-confrontational and pleasing variety. This gentleness should not be mistaken for a lack of substance however: there is a probing creativity at work here, and a challenging concern with questions of identity is evident in the lyrical text.

The conflict between the constructed nature of identity and our strong desire to feel our sense of self as something innate is a recurring theme here. The self in these songs is almost a cypher, devoid of certainty or inherence, drifting between past and future, a construct of both, but also their author. Identity is shown as distinction from the other, and related to intolerance; as a construct of self-examination; as an act of defiance; as an agglomeration of choices and experiences; as a process of transformation; but never as a given.

This rigorous and clear sighted representation is in stark contrast to the usual dramatic agents of popular song, whose identity is so much a given that they are archetypes more even than stereotypes; the songs equally eschew the false certainty of narrative closure, and the overriding sense is consequently one of ambiguity. This sense is no more to my mind than a representation of experience that is unclouded by the illusion of certainty: there is no ambiguity of meaning, which while complex, hard to pin down and impossible to paraphrase, is expressed with an admirable precision, perfectly embodied by the precise rhythmic structure of the beats in harness to the atmospheric and hypnotic soundscapes.

My French is very poor, so I won’t attempt to talk about the two songs whose lyrics are in that language, although I will say that Google Translate’s opinion was as hilarious as ever… I’ve often sought out music in other languages simply because not understanding the lyrics is often preferable to being annoyed by them: in this case however I find myself anxious to know what puzzle boxes of nested meanings they might contain.

At times, for me, the textures of Funambule recall the moods of Aphex Twin’s Richard D. James Album, but its atmospheres are very much its own, and it is both a more serious work, and despite its highly technological nature, a more organic one. There’s a very fertile chemistry at work between the two collaborators who produced this recording, which succeeds in expressing some challenging and thought provoking meanings without bludgeoning the listener: instead they are lulled into a receptive state, and the music’s uncanny, astringent aesthetic smuggles its subversion past the listener’s dormant preconceptions. Beautifully oblique, and obliquely beautiful.

Sagan Lane | Funambule | Album Review by Jester Jay (29.05.2011)

Sagan Lane pushes duo into duality on a host of levels. On Funambule, Marley Butler and Sarah Bilodeau stretch their tightrope across the chasm between electronic and acoustic, looped structure and ambient accent, and sweet folk ballad and electronic beat. Like most strong art, Sagan Lane is more interested in presentation than resolution. Listeners can decide for themselves which elements are ascendent. Throughout Funambule, Bilodeau's voice is chameleon like, taking on the appropriate color for each piece, from Margo Timmons (Cowboy Junkies) to Suzanne Vega to Liz Phair. This flexibility gives the songs room to come into their own space. Similarly, the electronic sounds offer their own mix of moderate beats and ethereal shimmers.

The well named opener, Trip Under the Entrance, is an experimental piece that is dissociatively dreamy. When I was in school, we sat through anti-drug propaganda that tried to present the sensory disorientation of being high. Like their version of an acid trip, Trip Under the Entrance, has swells of sound, twitchy, punctuated beats, and lurches of incomprehensible vocals. This loopy, backmasked start forces the listener into the same choice of how to interpret all that follows and how pleasurable the experience will be. The following track, Mikodeau, provides a balm to the first track. The soothing indie folk emphasizes the folk side with added mild, electronic texture. Halfway though, the song transitions more fully to the indie side, with a stripped down Liz Phair kind of vulnerable honesty.

The rest of the album proves just as eclectic. Transcience contrasts an electro pop beat with stately strings and a Suzanne Vega vocal. Another lengthy track, Script, holds long vocal tones over a tight punchy melodic loop. Despite erecting a set of looped elements, the overall sound is sparse. The end opens up into a lushly vocalized, ethereal sound that exaggerates the sonic space of the piece. Isolated Opposites pairs a laid back electro beat with a moody track. The beat balances the snaky bassline and the sway of the hypnotic vocal.

Funambule offers a set of choices. Which aspects of Sagan Lane's sound will appeal or repel? Which songs offer the deepest meanings? The album lays it out before you...sip on a tart, strong margarita while you ponder.

But remember, not deciding is itself a decision.

Eleanor Williams | Orange Peel and Paper Oliver Ardity (27.04.2011)

I’ve been lucky enough a few times recently to find myself reviewing music that’s motivated by a creative generosity. This is not to say that it involves any expectation of gratitude, but simply that it is presented with total honesty, and a pleasing absence of defensive posing. Eleanor Williams, in her cover art, sits upright, leaning slightly forward, with an open stance that conveys precisely the openness and directness of her music.

In the performances recorded here Williams’ most notable strength is her singing. She is possessed of a voice that ranges from an ethereal fragility, to a resonant strength, with an impressively secure intonation that sees her around some nice ornaments and melismas, and a deeply musical sense of phrasing. Whether performing her own material, or the two Arlen/ Harburg showtunes, ‘It’s Only A Paper Moon’ and ‘If I Only Had A Brain’, she is a thoughtful vocalist, with the understanding and the resources to unify the lyrical and musical texts into a single self-supporting utterance.

As a lyricist she actually bears a certain passing resemblance to the aforementioned Yip Harburg, using wit and playfulness to say things that are frequently profound, without ever imposing her meanings on the listener. Of course Williams is not working in a high stakes commercial environment, which frees her to address her meanings more directly than Harburg, a committed socialist, could when writing the book for The Wizard Of Oz. Stylistically Williams’ own work hovers somewhere between the tonal-chromatic soundworld of the showtune and the modal-diatonic territory of folksong.

The principal accompanimental voice is Williams’ ukulele, but she is joined on a variety of instruments by the ever creative Marley Starskey Butler (whose Sagan Lane project I reviewed recently). The arrangements are mainly simple, with additional parts that do not intrude on the intimate relationship between Williams’ hands on the strings and her vocal cords, but they are highly imaginative, and make as much use of ambient or environmental sounds as they do of conventional harmonic or rhythmic reinforcement.

The album opens with a snippet of conversation and noodling, to position the listener in the session, and immediately destroys the usual separation and distance between performer and audience: obviously, we can’t join the conversation directly, but it feels as though we are invited to, particularly as the opening song is so informal. That engagement continues right through to the end of the epic folksong that closes the album.

This is a very unassuming album. It reads very much like someone playing for their own pleasure: it is chamber rather than stage music, and is ‘amateur’ in the truest sense of the word. But I say it ‘reads’ that way rather than it ‘sounds’ that way, because it is delivered with a great deal of musical skill that is anything but amateurish. I’ve already spoken about the vocal performances, but the instrumental work delivers simple parts played with relaxed precision and a sweet tone. Everything is well suited to its role in the proceedings, doing just enough and no more. The music has an under-the-radar quality, smuggling its accomplishment past the listener’s snoozing faculties. Should you choose to pay it the attention it deserves, but never demands, you’ll find a lot of attention to detail, some lovely melodies, crafty, oblique lyrics, and a warm buoyancy that provokes thought and pleasure in equal measure.

Eleanor Dattani | Single Review by Oliver Ardity (14.19.2015)

The details of this recording, the sounds of a real place that hover just below the point of audible clarity, the unfabricated particulars of Dattani’s lyrical observations, the physical woman’s body immanent in her voice, are so fragile and so precious that they make me want to cry. Such clarity and honesty are a rare gift. It’s a brief song, just a guitar and a voice, and it deserves to be heard.

Enough | Single Review by Oliver Ardity (15.12.2015)

I’m not quite sure what started Marley Butler rapping, but the noted art-pop auteur turns out to be quite good at it. He doesn’t attempt to blind us with what the rap mainstream would recognise as dazzling technique, but runs with its fluctuating meters and recursive rhyme schemes, cleaving to the spoken-word poetry fringe of the genre. With Aokid’s dream-like production underpinning his bars Butler’s free-associative lyrical flow produces a disorientating effect. This might or might not be a break-up song… but whatever it is, it’s far too ambiguous and complex for any such characterisation to sum it up. I could listen to this beautiful track all day, without ever working out quite what questions it’s asking.

Caution Elephant | Monster | Single Review by Oliver Ardity (04.06.2012)

Two members of Caution Elephant have cropped up on my radar in the past; bassist Marley Butler releases music under his own name, and with Sagan Lane, operates ‘production company and artists’ collective’ Naplew Productions, and produces artists including Caution Elephant’s vocalist Eleanor Williams, whose Orange Peel & Paper is a discretely accomplished album, including more than convincing interpretations of two Harburg-Arlen standards. Monster draws elements from diverse popular music dialects, including rock, reggae, 2-tone and urban blues, arranged for electric guitar, electric bass, drums and voice. Its lyric is playfully disturbing, its melody is jazzily curvaceous, and its arrangement is sparse, even at its peaks of dynamics and density. Creative, intelligent, amusing, and performed precisely to the requirements of the material, this track is all an avant-pop-rock song should be. If you click the YouTube link above, you’ll also see an exceptionally good video made by the band’s guitarist Emma Reading.

Blind Clouds | Single Review by Oliver Ardity (26.09.2013)

Mellow and heavy, the beat on which this single is based makes its bones at either end of the frequency spectrum, leaving the middle to the voices. Marley Starskey Butler’s contributes a measured flow of intelligent, reflective rap, and Anne-Marie Allen’s adorns the track with soulful embellishments. It’s a lovely sound, and although it’s not at all in-your-face, it has enough of strange and inventive details to keep you guessing. Another blinder from this art-pop auteur.

Freckled | Single Review by Oliver Ardity (28.05.2014)

Rap is a relatively new technique to Marley Butler, but he doesn’t make the mistake here of taking it on in its core territories. Instead he exploits the specific impact of a lyric delivered rhythmically, setting up a nice flow with some simple cross-rhythms cutting through a sparse, chunky beat based on an acoustic bass sample. The main event in this excellent single is the lyrical text, and there’s a great video to accompany it. One account of a woman’s visual self-image is offered, from her lover’s perspective; then another is offered from hers. And then the groove ceases and a wordless female voice speaks its own bodily reality through melody. And then it’s done, enough content for a novella in under three minutes.

Lockeys Flag | Single Review by Oliver Ardity (08.05.2013)

There’s a distinct eighties vibe to this delicate slice of luminescent synthpop. Staccato notes stutter in funky little flurries, some percussive, some pitched, but most too short to be wholly one or the other. Butler’s rap/spoken-word bridge is melancholy and full of doubt, while Ellie’s vocal celebrates in contrast. What comes of their differing perceptions is beyond the compass of the song, but within it, the emotional tension is a good counterpart to the summery vibe. Intelligent and subtle, and as well-made as all Butler’s work.

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