We’re currently working on an article about compilation albums at ACL, which has prompted a few thoughts regarding the tracks included. We’re covering all manner of compilation, from collections of existing tracks to themed CDs of new and unreleased material. The question with the latter is: are these tracks merely an artist’s off-cuts, or do they dread sending a submission to the label, wishing that they had held it back for their own album? A third alternative is that an artist will write to a brief, creating a track that will thematically fit in with its companions. It is this approach that A Year In The Country has adopted, tasking a regular array of producers to create tracks that follow a particular concept.
One of those frequent contributors is Mat Handley, who runs the excellent Woodford Halse record label and records as Pulselovers. He’s selected ten of his productions that have appeared on A Year In The Country compilations and assembled them into Circles Within Circles. So if you are familiar with AYITC’s back catalogue, you will probably know most of the tracks here. But if you haven’t, this will count as a brand new album. If the mood takes you, the original compilations are on Bandcamp, and you can delve into the background stories and inspiration. But it’s not necessary to appreciate an album that explores different territory while retaining a cohesive vision.
Wisely, Handley opens with many of his familiar Pulselovers traits on display on the charming “Brodsworth,” which slowly builds from silence into bright melodic joy. There are several diversions away from this, with the atmospheric “Fuggles” fashioning temple percussion in an abandoned brewery. “Woodford Halse To Fenny Compton In Five Minutes” turns a rural drive into a motorik monolith – and yes, both those places exist, although you would be hard pressed to drive it in Fünf Minuten. Opening side two, “Beat Her Down,” is the biggest departure from the expected with a virtual choir making an appearance. Written for an imaginary folk-horror film, this is particularly gruesome: “Mother’s here / don’t make a sound / take the rod / and beat her down,” goes the repeated chorus. It is quite the shift in tone, but we are soon back in more familiar musical territory, all the way to the woozy piano of “The Gaumont Frieze.”
It’s easy to disregard the provenance of Circles Within Circles’ constituent parts as it feels like a proper record rather than a collection of individual tracks. That is due to the excellent track-sequencing – always an underappreciated art when it comes to vinyl LPs. The pieces that are less characteristic of Pulselovers’ usual output (such as “Beat Her Down”) fit in seamlessly to the whole experience. Both sides flow beautifully, demonstrating that Handley has a ridiculously high strike rate when composing to a concept. Perhaps the added level of discipline focuses the creativity – it’s a benefit that should see Pulselovers approached for soundtrack commissions. Circles Within Circles is ample proof of his capabilities. (Jeremy Bye)