Six years have passed since The Fields Lie Sleeping Underneath, but during this time, Frances Castle (The Hardy Tree) has continued her work as an award-winning illustrator while also running the excellent Clay Pipe label. Her illustrations hearken back to a kinder, simpler time, filled with sharp lines and soft colors. Her music follows the same template.
Through Passages of Time continues the theme of the first album, recovering stories of vanished businesses, transformed architectures and hidden histories. By gathering the ghosts of bygone London, The Hardy Tree preserves their memories for some while introducing them to others. But while the specific subject may be London, the larger theme holds a universal appeal. Most of us keep a growing list in the back of our minds of places that once beckoned, but are now gone: from a favorite tree fallen to a record shoppe shuttered to a river run dry. We tell newcomers, “that fashion store was once a pub” or “travel down a certain path, and you might find the old deserted rail line.” Joni Mitchell once sang, “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot,” but a generation later, they’ve paved the parking lot and put up something else.
Through Passages of Time provides elegies for locations such as Newport Market, Sandbridge Court, Sluice House Tavern, even (*shudder*) Cut Throat Lane. The happy use of Moog, Mellotron and other seemingly antiquated instruments is both tribute and reflection. Once upon a time, these instruments were shiny and new, but now they seem genteel. While listening, one remembers a not-so-distant past, and wonders at the seeming acceleration of time.
The album’s mood is surprisingly upbeat, given the subject matter. Even the ghost at the end of “St John Horsleytown” seems happy just to be remembered. Doors creak, hammers pound, church bells toll, children hawk their wares. A slight wistfulness visits the proceedings, especially in stringed tracks such as “Newport Market” and “Baltic Wharf.” But more consistently, the album sounds grateful, accepting the passages of time while attempting to fold time over on itself. As Castle writes, “Look carefully and clues to an ancient past can still be found.” Does the culvert remember the water after it has become dry? Is a church still a church without worshippers? Castle’s answer seems to be yes.
The mastering is crisp and immediate throughout. “Sandbridge Court” offers a worthy demonstration of sound separation: music box tones in one speaker, woodwinds in the other, all slowing down at the end as that spectral whistle reappears. This crispness provides a contrast to the majority of nostalgic recordings, which tend to warp, distort and loop sources, covering them with a layer of sonic glaze. The Hardy Tree offers a counter-thought: that the past need not be fuzzy, but when well recalled can compete with the now. This thought may provide solace to those who see the past slipping away and who fear an uncertain future. A happy memory ties a loop in time, and finishes the knot with a bow. (Richard Allen)
Release date: 2 December