Pulco: Clay Cutlery – album review
Pulco – Clay Cutlery (Folkwit)
CD / DL
Release date: July 2013
9 / 10
According to the man himself “Pulco music is home-recorded lo-fi experimentalism – observational, poignant and at times laugh out loud funny.” Here we review his latest album – and conclude that it contains some of Ashley Cooke’s best songwriting & performance to date.
Ash Cooke has been very, very busy this year. In mid-July he released Modular Pursuits: 15 Pulco Songs Covered by Various Artists. The “various” artists included the likes of Euros Childs, Laurence Made Me Cry, Snippet, Picturebox, and many other highly regarded UK DIY artists. But every year is a busy year for Pulco- having released 10 albums and EPs over the span of 10 years.
Clay Cutlery (Folkwit) was released into the wild only a week after Modular Pursuits, and includes sound samples from many of his collaborators. This album is an evolutionary step forward for Pulco and it is a lo-fi wonder of first magnitude. Ashley Cooke played all of the instruments on the album, and recorded and mixed it all on an iPad.
Yes, this album was recorded on a fucking iPad- and when you hear it, you will not believe it.
For those unfamiliar with Pulco- a quick beginners guide: After a successful run as a member of Derrero, Cooke has continued to write and record as the solo artist Pulco. Over the last 10 years Pulco has developed a very non-rock / post-rock toolkit and approach. He has recorded lyrics and spoken word pieces on a phone answering machine under his desk, wanders around and does a lot of field recordings with a handheld digital, and typically includes a wide range of collaborators on his albums- many of whom appeared on Modular Pursuits. Ashley Cooke is not afraid to use “cheap” gear- because he is an artist that can sculpt and transform sounds in a way that disconnects any association between “cheap” and “lo-fi.” He plays a £15 guitar and uses rubber squeeze toys- but you would never know it from the recording.
Clay Cutlery was a mile-marker for Pulco- a celebration of 10 years of home recording. This album is a collection of songs, spoken-word pieces, and sound collages presented as a sonic autobiography. To Ashley Cooke, having an album of pictures that document your past only provides part of the story. He wants his grandchildren to have a soundtrack to go along with the family photo archive to provide a better context for the images- a simple and brilliant concept.
Warning: This is not an easy listening album. It is a series of vignettes- documenting the days and nights in the life of Pulco- a man recording (some times in the wardrobe) the sounds and feelings that fill his head on small handheld devices. The sounds are stitched together expertly. The lyrics on Clay Cutlery were generated using random lines from books, poems, magazines, and television dialogue- very much in the cut-up tradition pioneered by William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin in the early 1960s. Clay Cutlery is like walking through a meadow somewhere in Wales, only you keep falling into rabbit holes and fox dens obscured by the tall grass. And you fall into stories. Sort of a metaphor for life itself.
Pulco often uses the first track as a formal introduction to the album- taking a very literary approach. The sampled first line of “Breath” sets the stage for the album with, “I imagine that at this point you’re feeling a bit like Alice- tumbling down the rabbit hole.” The remainder of “Breath” is an instrumental groove that also introduces the listener to the range of sonic elements that will reappear throughout Clay Cutlery. The sound of breath, down-tempo percussion, water sounds, synthesizers, reversed recordings, and ambient electronic sounds. This is headphone music. For sure.
Sonic collages appear at intervals throughout the album, spoken word pieces combined with ambient sounds and looped melodies. A great example of the Pulco spoken-word electronic mashup comes in “The many voices of Brian Jacks and Brian Mays,” where the names are repeated (with an occasional “Brian Jones” thrown in) and manipulated at various speeds and pitches. This repeated string of names is modified and manipulated building layers that eventually form a rhythm. Ambient sounds and other voices fill the spatial gaps and pop up at different coordinates in the headphone space. This is not a toe-tapping song- but at 83-seconds it is not an annoyance- it is very clever and fun.
The sonic architecture of “Karate Kid” is another sound collage that provides an example of Pulco’s approach to lo-fi recording as a fine craft. Sampled sounds are splashed against single piano notes and a synthesized glissade. The reverb of slapping sounds and shouting are real- and might have been recorded at one of his kids’ karate classes, actually, they probably were. This piece creates tension. It’s confrontational, combative, and sonic. In similar fashion “Cathedral” uses layers of keyboards, like bricks and stones, to bit-by-bit construct a complex structure. Sampled game console sounds and sampled percussion sit in the background- as Pulco builds a spire of sound. A similar approach is used in “Suite for electric toothbrush.” This is not a toss-off piece- and don’t dismiss it because of the title. The manipulated sounds of a toothbrush are layered with a low-level chorus filling the background.
The palette of field recordings and found sounds used on Clay Cutlery play a critical role in Pulco’s music. “Chair O Plane” demonstrates how these recordings when combined with a melody have a transformative effect. Picking a repeating pattern on his £15 guitar, a spoken word presentation, and the collisions of sounds from a South Wales fairground create a picture of a walk through chaos in this piece. Beautiful chaos. This is a technique first presented in “Karate Kid”- a set of field recordings used as a backdrop for a song- again, a very painterly approach.
“Grass Sleep”- is completely sampled from a spoken word piece by the poet / character known only as “Toastie.” The provenance and identity of the character aside, this piece sounds like the audio to a 1950’s sci-fi “B” movie. A semi-coherent character has an encounter with “…some weird green shit.” You cannot tell if the character is describing common grass or an alien substance. The degraded tape hiss background alters time- it sounds like an old recording. Ambient keyboard sounds, recorded at higher fidelity, drift in and out of the left and right channels- adding to the atmosphere and tension of the story being told. A faux-sitar, percussion, and odd-bumps to the microphone creating additional tension to an already intense story. The first (and many) times I listened to “Grass Sleep”- I did not care for it at all. That’s because I focused on the words (it IS a spoken word piece after all)- and once you think that you’ve gotten the shtick- it definitely rambles. I found myself not giving “Grass Sleep” the attention it really deserved. BUT- if you listen to everything except the words- this is actually a very atmospheric piece of music and one of the most challenging, and puzzling, tracks on the album.
“Skike” is also very much a spoken-word piece, but this one is unlike the others (not that any two are the same). The words are carried by a warm guitar melody, punctuated by jazzy chords. While the arrangement is minimal, it slowly builds- and carries your interest for the entire 3:43. There is something in every Pulco song, like “Skike,” that captures your attention- because there are so many understated elements that are well executed, but hidden. There is a low level scraping of distorted guitar strings, found sounds of household voices, and a very digital beat riding beneath it all. And while the vocals are not always discernable- the emphasis of key words and phrases is intentional. In this case, “the brain has corridors, surpassing material space.” “Skike” sounds like 21-st century beat poetry- and it works without sounding cliché.
The sampled soundscapes on Clay Cutlery are not over-used and are well placed interludes between more the structured songs. The use of field recordings captures real events and puts them into a dream-like world of memories through clever manipulation.
Do not be fooled- Clay Cutlery is not a lo-fi experimental head-piece. The album also contains some of Ashley Cooke’s best songwriting and performances to date. The sound collages and spoken word pieces highlight Pulco’s brilliant recording technique- which is carried over into a collection of extremely well-written songs with more accessible structures. “Hoop” uses layers of sampled and looped sounds, repeated phrases, field recordings, and ambient electronics- all of which are woven together beautifully. This is a transitional piece into the more structured songs on the album- and provides insight into Pulco’s wonderful sense of humor. The laughter at the end of the final line, “he put a belt around my life” indicates that Ash Cooke thoroughly enjoys what he is doing.
“Gnarl Chess” is a down-tempo progression that repeats and contains many traditional rock instruments- ride cymbal, keyboards, snare drums, and an organ. Pulco builds a nice groove- and his reedy vocals bring light into the piece, while at the edges are sampled voices and ambient electronics. There is a conversation going on, but you can’t quite make it out, while he chants, “Oceans of black fire…” over the top- in a completely non-menacing fashion. This is a great riff- unhurried but performed with precision.
In typical Pulco fashion- “Cat” begins with the sound of a cat purring, rain falling, and birds chirping. The guitar is gently plucked and synth strings fill out the background- along with the birds. This is a pastoral scene (just watch out for rabbit holes) and Pulco’s voice enters the tidy meadow singing the words to “Cat” with delicacy. This is the pace and rhythm of country life, but this is NOT a folk song. It is very easy to visualize the cat on its daily rounds in the meadow, hunting birds and taking naps. Like many of the songs on Clay Cutlery, Pulco takes a very painterly approach to his melodies and lyrics. In “Cat” we begin to see that many small brush strokes are creating a world on his sonic canvas.
“Who are you?” is one of the true rockers on the album. And yes, Pulco rocks. A single ride cymbal and snare keep a slow, but steady, beat going, and a synth and the vocals carry the melody. This is a beautiful song- slow, but not mournful. The synth tones are starry but not overdone, and provide one of the slowest hooks that I have ever heard. This is a song about feelings of confusion and how to process them- much like the processed sounds that give the song a lush audio field. “Who are you” is one of the high points from Clay Cutlery. The song is like a slow burn- the questioning of identity in the lyrics is a common Pulco theme- and this one will certainly ride in your skull for a while.
The song that completely hooked me on Pulco is “The Spectre” (see above). Maybe it was the amount of coffee I was drinking, but after the first listen I emailed and texted a bunch of folks and said, “You must hear this. Now. I don’t give a shit what you’re doing. You. Must. Hear. This.” The song begins with an almost nonsensical chant: “noo noo noo nee noo nonna”- which is joined by a phased synth, an electric garage door, and a single ride cymbal. It sounds like gibberish set to a minimal beat. This pattern goes on for 58-seconds, and just as you are putting your finger on the fast forward button, “The Spectre” blooms into a very cool psych-folk melody. This is Syd Barrett psych-folk-you-will-never-go-back territory. The £15 guitar sounds elegant, the sound expands as the keyboards fill out the melody, along with now familiar bird sounds and the squeaking of a plastic toy dinosaur. The melody is an ear worm that burrows in for the next two minutes.
“The Spectre” is one of those songs which leaves you feeling completely satisfied, but you feel robbed- because you want it to go on for at least another measure, and then another. The only other song that has had that effect on me is Wire’s “Outdoor Miner.”
“Trial of the Lanyard” is another Clay Cutlery winner. The vocal phrasing of the intro is reminiscent of a Renaissance fair- a very unfair stereotype of UK folk music. But the abrupt transition to a techno-rave hits fast and hard- and is something that an artist like Emperor X would pull off- to go from small and quiet to big and complexly layered at the flip of a switch. Because life is like that some times- and this is Pulco’s sonic autobiography after all. Like “The Spectre”- “Trial of the Lanyard” has an intro that might be off-putting to some, but if you are patient there is a reward- and it rocks. The beat is solid, the keyboards are well placed, and voices and guitar lines drift in and out at just the right moments. “Trial of the Lanyard” is an example of how well executed DIY recording, paired with great composition and performance, can bring a sense of true authenticity in the music.
Typically, Pulco closes his albums with a long piece- and “Snowdon Race, July 21, 2012” is especially interesting in ways that might not seem obvious on first listen. The closer to Clay Cutlery is a 6:25 field recording. And this piece is is exactly what the title implies- the sounds from an annual road race to the top of the Snowdon Hill and back. The piece consists entirely of crowd noise before the race start- a very spatial recording of casual cacophony. The race director barks instructions to the runners through a megaphone, with the best one being, “If you’re not feeling well- don’t be a hero. We don’t want to have to call a helicopter in…” In “Snowdon,” Pulco creates a soundtrack for people to listen to, as they look at photos of the race posted on Flickr or Facebook. The goal was to document the sounds that would match the images that people in the crowd captured. Another almost un-noteworthy event from life- yet one worthy of preservation. This piece reminds us that the sounds of life are just as important as the images.
There is some truly amazing DIY music coming out of Wales, mixing traditional Welsh forms and lyrical themes with modern technology- and Pulco is solidly on the post-rock frontline. The collection of songs and sonic collages that comprise Clay Cutlery, are a lesson on how to push the limits of lo-fi technology- and here it is done with great success. Pulco is a gifted songwriter and musician- who also happens to be an extremely talented and innovative engineer- required ingredients in the DIY musician’s tool kit. Clay Cutlery is a significant album because the concept, sonic structure, and performance all come together neatly and naturally, much like life in a meadow. Just mind the post-rock rabbit holes.