Ballads of the Research Department
So here's a surprise: The Boats on…12k? Well, why not; stranger things have happened—though it is a bit unexpected to find Craig Tattersall and Andrew Hargreaves issuing music on Taylor Deupree's imprint rather than doing so through one of their usual channels, whether it be Home Normal, flau, or Moteer (co-managed by Tattersall and Andrew Johnson). At least one more surprise characterizes the release: in contrast to the songs of conventional length on previous outings, Ballads of the Research Department features four long-form settings, each pushing past the ten-minute mark and all offering variations on a highly personalized ‘ballad' theme. At the same time, the lines of intersection between The Boats and 12k have never been stronger, with both nudging their respective works ever deeper into invitingly warm electro-acoustic zones. In both cases, one encounters little that's abrasive, alienating, or overly cerebral; instead, the music is suffused with humanity, and there's an embrace of the full spectrum of possibilities offered by electronic and acoustic sounds. On Ballads of the Research Department a major source of that humanizing quality can be attributed to the presence of cellist Danny Norbury whose playing elevates all four of the tracks, including “The Ballad for the Girl on the Moon,” an extended exercise in slow-motion dreamscaping that provides one of the album's loveliest examples of The Boats' artistry.
The album's painterly sound-world is rich but not overloaded, with Tattersall and Hargreaves arranging the various elements into impressionistic set-pieces that also leave ample room for Norbury and vocalists Chris Stewart and Cuushe. Tattersall and Hargreaves weave vibes, woodwinds, strings, and piano into understated yet intoxicating settings, with beat patterns and voices occasionally surfacing for extra colour and electronics used to help bridge episodes within a given piece. It's also not uncommon for gently chugging breakbeats to surface within The Boats' gauzy moodscapes. In terms of individual pieces, the addition of guitar shadings and Stewart's soft voice to “The Ballad of Failure” enhances its dreamy allure, as does the subtle integration of Norbury's cello. That “The Ballad of Indecision” sounds much like the kind of material issued by flau, Schole, and mü-nest isn't surprising either, given the hushed vocal Japanese singer Cuushe (and flau associate) contributes. Tattersall and Hargreaves' first recording by The Boats appeared in 2004, and in the years since the two have built up a body of work that makes it difficult to select one or two that stand out from the lot. Having said that, one can confidently declare Ballads of the Research Department to be one such high point.