Given that Dave Fridmann has helmed the latest and greatest long players by Mercury Rev, Mogwai, The Flaming Lips and Wheat I've come to regard his appearance amongst an albums credits as a seal of unimpeachable quality, and so it is that his production and mixing roles on the third album from The Delgados (who lead a double-life as the force behind their own Chemikal Underground label, home to talent such as the aforementioned Mogwai and the recently returned Arab Strap) render "The Great Eastern" an essential purchase for me. There's something about his production technique that's almost anti-production, letting the essential essences and flavours of the bands themselves come flooding out, which is arguably a far more difficult trick to play than it sounds.
The essence of The Delgados, on this evidence, is that of a scruffier Steely Dan who were weaned on psychedelia and folk music rather than jazz and Tin Pan Alley pop. The Delgados will never short-change you with just one melody per song when four will do, and the overabundance of alien instrumentation (including accordion, autoharp, sleigh bells, vibraphone, dulcimers, tubular bells, cellos, trumpet, flugelhorn, violin, viola, clarinet, flute, trombone, euphonium and saxophone) suggests that their affinity for fellow countrypeople The Incredible String Band runs deeper than the occasional b-side cover version.
There's much to admire about "The Great Eastern": the tumbling string section sample that loops around "Knowing When To Run" charms me every time, and the elaborate opera of songs such as "The Past That Suits You Best" and "Accused Of Stealing" is never less than entertaining. But the whole experience is rather akin to visiting a stately home: very grand, impressively ornate but ultimately you have to ask yourself, would you like to do the dusting here? Planet Delgado is a fascinating place to be, but nothing here connects on an emotional level. The lyrics, for example, might be elaborately literate but behind all the painstaking craft they seem to say absolutely nothing. So ultimately "The Great Eastern" is Dave Fridmann's first less-than-essential production, but a glamorous failure nevertheless.
THE DELGADOS The Complete BBC Peel Sessions (Chemikal Underground)
In containing exactly what it says on the tin (give or take the odd borderline inclusion such as the first session documented here, originally recorded for Radio Scotlands Beat Patrol but later rebroadcast by Peel, and a home-taped contribution to a JP Burns Night special) theres a slight air of sadness to this collection. Both the band and their patron are gone, and it might be worth considering whether well see their like, or a cultural climate in which theyd both be able to flourish, again.
But we have the music. Im not particularly keen on much of the first disc: to me, the early Delgados sounded like Sonic Youth in short trousers, caught with their fingers in the feedback jar, and too redolent of other contemporaneous six-string stragglers (yes, Seafood, I mean you) to be enjoyable. But if that first disc is crippled by its dogmatic adherence to indie guitar band first principles, the second explodes into glorious Technicolor from the first. Maybe its because it opens with a session promoting the only other Delgados album I own, 2000s Dave Fridmann-helmed The Great Eastern, but from here on in the songs seem much more considered and multi-layered, mysterious, enfolding cheese to the first discs take-this-itll-do-you-good chalk. No Danger always puts me in mind of Albert Hammonds Names, Tags, Numbers & Labels not a bad thing, incidentally and Make Your Move is wintry, Eleanor Rigby-esque melancholia. Accused Of Stealing suggests an ornate, opiated Syds Floyd, Bike with its manic downhill clatter softened, and the rather rambling Aye Today redeems itself with a delicious sense of resolution to its closing pages. An all-covers session from 2002 brings a winningly clumpy Mr Blue Sky, accurately forging the string arrangements and snorkelled backing vocals on a beer money budget (all the more remarkable when you consider how few people have even attempted an Electric Light Orchestra cover). California Uber Alles is spy movie sinister whilst smoothing out Jello Biafras demonic warble. The corporate nightmare of Matthew And Son still sounds contemporary, for all its references to filing and cake. Selected by Peel himself, Last Rose Of Summer was originally recorded by The Symbols, a Jamaican vocal group; here it becomes a drifting, ethereal lament. That Burns Night contribution, Parcel Of Rogues, is similarly haunting. On the bands final Peel session, supporting their 2004 swansong Universal Audio, their music was snappier and more concise than it had been in years, but retained the warmth and invention of recent times. The highlight again has folksiness to the fore, being an acerbic reading (as if there could be any other kind) of Ewan MacColls Ballad Of Accounting. So closes the book on the Scottish bands ten years of indie toil, and in the absence of a retrospective of their studio work The Complete BBC Peel Sessions seems to be an appropriate way of commemorating it.
Doves/The Delgados - The Great Hall, Cardiff University Students Union 6 December 2002