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Glaswegian ensemble the Bathers issued a steady stream of records from 1987 to 2001, showcasing the heart-on-sleeve sentiments and lavish aesthetics of singer/songwriter/pianist/guitarist Chris Thomson. For Thomson, love is an ever-evolving, elusive creature, quixotic in its whims, but worth the chase no matter whether it’s pledging its fealty or slipping through his fingers, and he’s not afraid to be extravagant in the settings of his passions. Once you’ve had a taste of Thomson’s music, easy comparisons abound: the Apartments, Richard Hawley, the Blue Nile minus the electronics, Cousteau, the Divine Comedy’s serious side, Thomas Feiner & Anywhen. But the Bathers carved out their own distinctive space in nineties pop music, one that saw plenty of acclaim but little financial return. German label Marina, which has never shied away from either pop melodiousness or high romanticism, was a natural home for the band, issuing three of their albums in the nineties, which are now seeing much-needed reissue.
The group’s third LP, 1993’s Lagoon Blues opens with a snippet of lush strings, which can be considered either an enticement or a warning, depending on your taste: plush settings ahead. For the most part, the strings act as the dominant instrumental sound throughout the album, sitting right next to the piano, acoustic guitars and tasteful rhythm section. But the true centerpiece of the arrangements is Thomson’s gruff voice – bristling with emotion while staying reserved, conveying almost desperate yearning while avoiding overweening theatrics. The creamy “Venice Shoes” and voice ‘n’ string quartet-soaked “Lolita” make use of the bowed instruments more forcefully than any so-called “rock” act since Scott Walker. Mind you, the usual pop group instrumentation is present as well – “Fermina Fair,” “Through the Old Holmwood,” “Carnival” and the string-less “Sweetheart Sessions” and “Ave the Leopards” connect to less sumptuous forms with insinuate electric guitar, pulsing percussion and melodies derived as much from country and folk as guitar pop. A better introduction to this marvelous artist couldn’t be had.
Originally released in 1995, Sunpowder follows suit, opening once again with a slither of strings and ripple of piano, over which Thomson – accompanied by Elizabeth Fraser of Cocteau Twins – croons about the “Danger in Love.” As before, Thomson and company alternate between opulent balladry and stripped-down folk rock, with the balance tipped in favor of the latter. But whether it’s the jazzy folk rock of “The Angel on Ruskin” and“Faithless,” the rich sonority of “The Dutch Venus” and “The Night is Young,” or the straightforward pop of “Send Me Your Halo,” Thomson sticks to his bruised romanticism and effortlessly gorgeous state of musical being with remarkable consistency. Sunpowder feels more like chapter two than the next book in the series, but it’s so well-crafted and heartfelt it doesn’t truly matter.
1997’s Kelvingrove Baby was once listed by the newspaper The Scotsman in a list of the 100 best Scottish albums, and no wonder. Really dialing back the orchestration, Thomson lays his sentiments bare in front of acoustic guitars and polite rhythms, his voice grown looser, jazzier and more soulful over time. The tracks have an Americana feel to them, not in any formal sense, but in the way the music revolves around rootsy rhythms and deliberate pacing, taking whatever time is needed – three-and-a-half minutes, seven, whatever – to get the message across. The straightforward expression of “Dial,” “The Fragrance Remains Insane” and “If Love Could Last Forever” works to Thomson’s advantage, stripping away any barriers between him and his listeners. He brings the strings back in for the melancholy “Hellespoint in a Storm” and the luscious “Once Upon a Time On the Rapenburg,” but, as before, they enhance his meaning, rather than smother it. The record finds its ultimate expression in the title track, eight minutes or so of soul-styled backing vocals, Van Morrison-esque acoustic strumming, jazz-folk drumming, occasional electric guitar stabs, and Thomson following his muse, both romantic and artistic, with ardent desire and steely determination. It may well be the ultimate Bathers moment from the Marina years, the apex of a record that deserves immediate rediscovery.
Not every rock fan is willing to let the kind of lush romanticism of these three beautiful records wash over them. But those with a taste for this kind of emotionally forthright chamber pop will wonder where the Bathers have been all their lives.
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