Album Review: caroline – caroline (Rough Trade)

caroline: caroline. Vinyl & CD. Norman Records UK

Sometime when the weather started to turn it’s back, we walked into Salford’s White Hotel to find the space out of place, and were directed to sit on the stage rather than in the audience. I noted how – above everything -caroline cared most about the microphone placements and space in the room, leaving a trail of artistic intrigue in their wake. It’s the easiest way to describe their sound, found on their wonderful resonance FM soundscape (aired in a 2020 lockdown), and most certainly here, where certain parts of their songs are recorded in the depths of empty swimming pools and different band members’ bedrooms.

The first seed of ‘caroline’ was planted 3 years ago. The riff to the opening track ‘Dark Blue’, was the first thing three of the eight members played. Over time, 5 other members joint and helped the band achieve their vision of completing the song. An appalachian folk sound in a polyamorous relationship with emo rock and modernist classical. The track itself is stunning, and a killer choice of opener. Beds of luscious guitar build on top of each other, and before long distant violins smothered in reverb join, with a sound that could only echo John Cale in their beautiful harshness. Built onto this are some atmospheric drums and sparse vocals before the piece ends in a sonorous silence.

The next track ‘Good Morning’ is so perfectly realised. The warmth of each instrument in the first half is breathtaking, and is a nice breather after the moody opener. Yet, as it progresses things sound more experimental. O’Malley becomes the bands town crier, shouting in political anguish over the instrumentation, followed by a spine chilling few minutes of disjointedness, held together by a domineering bassline. It’s as if this is the last thing someone is fighting to hear during the final stages of dementia.

This kind of sonic fraying is used as a motif on this album, and can be heard at the edges of multiple tracks. Notably on 3 blind corners, instrumental lo fi jams, which spill out of the eaves of the longer tracks and pinch listeners out of their trance. The most memorable of these is ‘zilch’, first heard in their soundscape last year. A discordant guitar piece, focusing on the harmonic registers over anything in a melodic key. It’s incredibly haunting, and is one of the best album cuts in general.

Another thing that is very refreshing is the vocals on a track like ‘desperately’ or ‘IWR’; both of which call back to a time long gone, dominated by chorale composers such as John Rutter. The former takes an almost acapella approach. Llewellyn’s voice is accompanied by a cello that holds his voice on it’s shoulders. ‘IWR’ has it’s similarities in vocals, building each layer of instrumentation atop of it. Yet still, this style of vocal holds best on ‘Skydiving On The Library Roof’. The lyrics are enough to make a grown man cry with 4 lines alone. ‘I’m starting to think when I tell everyone, of leaving and getting away, that what I’m really saying to them and through them, is that I just want them to stay’. The drum fills are memorably cathartic, the violin and cello refrains marry each other before divorcing, cello and flute lines mourn in response. As good as ever this adds as a nice pro for this album.

Sure, caroline’s debut is as art house as their music videos, can get a little clockwork in it’s weaker spots, and is not going to be for everyone, but with this level of artistic ambition the sky could really be the limit.

Key tracks: dark blue, good morning, IWR, skydiving on the library roof, zilch

caroline will be released on Rough Trade Records on Friday 25 February 2021