Some brave souls may take up the musical saw and coax a few warbling, wobbly whines from it, but Kev Hopper really understands the instrument. He can make it swoon and scream like a whiny theremin or quiver like the lower lip of a crybaby. Though the saw -- played with a bow -- might be one of the weirdest instruments out there, it's no gimmick on Whispering Foils, Hopper's third album. Actually it's but one of a whole cadre of musical oddities on this disc. When was the last time you encountered flügelhorn, tubular bells, bird noises, and glockenspiels on one record? Mike Oldfield circa 1973?
Hopper was the bassist for '80s English oddballs Stump, a group eccentric enough to title an album A Fierce Pancake. He was last heard sawing away on Stereolab's Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night. On his current, all-instrumental effort, he's helped out by his pals in the High Llamas, Sean O'Hagan and Dominic Murcott. Hopper is still playing the bass, but it's a prepared bass, owing a debt of gratitude to the piano manipulations of John Cage. On "Riker 2" his bass takes on a slippery aquatic feel, each note bending like a Slinky descending a staircase. "Canary Lights" weaves Emma Carter's wordless vocals with Janie Armour's accordion, until the whole sounds like street-level Astor Piazzola mixed with a pigeon's throaty coo. "Starfields" sounds exactly likes its name, with splice-'n'-dice samples, Murcott's glockenspiel, and Charles Hayward's celestial cymbals shimmering like luminous pinpoints against black velvet. "Return of the Bung" is reminiscent of one of Eno's dreamy pan-African pieces, complete with sampled nature noises. Hopper's heavily treated bass anchors the piece like a suspension bridge, and galloping percussion adds a sub-Saharan allure.
Every song on Whispering Foils has an odd meter, but the three-legged limp of "Return of the Bung" must keep time by Dali's melted clock. "Mr. Chuff Chuff" places O'Hagan's acoustic guitar against a backdrop of handclaps, whistling saw, bouncy marimba, and the flutter of pigeons, with a bracing tropical feel recalling Martin Denny's South Pacific exotica. The title track closes the disc with chiming vibes and floating flügelhorn followed by nine minutes of wind rattling through sailboat masts. As esoteric as it sounds on paper, Whispering Foils is somehow startlingly familiar and remarkably easy on the ears. In fact Hopper's class-clown term paper may be the most durable oddity to be handed in this year.
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