Pick up or sit down in front of some mythic instrument, a battered guitar or an old piano perfectly out-of-tune, and the songs write themselves: a familiar story used when a musician can’t find the words. But what if you’ve hardly played said instrument? Tim Presley sat down in front of a piano and ‘I Have to Feed Larry’s Hawk’ came forth.
The record is a reassuringly bare-bones assemblage built around that instrument, which sometimes translates into gauzy ballads like ‘I Can Dream You’ or those like its title track, on which an uncertain and wavering Presley states: “I hate everything.” It’s a sort of personal diary tied to abstract images, one that’s at once melancholic and optimistic. Larry’s Hawk is a metaphor for something innate, a beast that has to be fed. There’s a kind of Jekyll and Hyde dynamic at play that lends itself to the mild-mannered and charming surrealism Presley favours.
‘Neighborhood Light’ is one of the more prototypically White Fence moments, as is the trashy ‘Until You Walk’. But there’s lots of room for variation and, indeed, reconciliation, since he couldn’t decide whether to release the record under the ‘Tim Presley’ or ‘White Fence’ moniker. ‘Indisposed’ is subtle and warm, as is airy single ‘Lorelei’, whose video sees the album cover bounce around the screen DVD player-style (it actually does touch the corner at one point) while ‘Forever Chained’, with its undulating boogie-woogie-ish piano, is less successful. Things work best when Presley privileges space and simplicity.
He started writing these songs in the Lake District (as Cate Le Bon was learning how to make furniture there) and recorded them in San Francisco – a sort of transatlantic project. But ‘I Have to Feed Larry’s Hawk’ is really more of a look inwards. The lovely ‘Fog City’ and ‘Fog City (Outro)’ aren’t poetastric meditations on the majesty of the fog (a characteristic of both the Lake District and San Francisco) but are more about the inner “blurriness” that comes with fighting addiction. Being in San Francisco was a necessary step towards that - ‘Harm Reduction’ is not just part of the track list but is also the name of the recovery centre Presley attended.
It’s these two songs ‘Harm Reduction (Morning)’ and ‘Harm Reduction (Street & Inside Mind)’ which stand apart from the rest: clocking in at almost 20 mins, these mind-easers bear the influence of analogue synthesis pioneers like Suzanne Ciani to whom Presley was listening as he recorded and recovered. They might get skipped easily, but they’re intriguing parts of an album which altogether represents a welcome change of direction.
Words: Wilf Skinner
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