CD review: Mono – Ecki

Local Cambridgeshire Artist
Either Ecki loves surprises, or hates librarians.

That may sound like a leap of logic, but look at it this way: the first listen leaves you entirely unsure where to put Mono. Depending on your point of view, this is a collection of songs that is characterised either by playful surprise (if you're on the same page), maddening frustration (if you're not), or existential crisis (if you're a librarian). Doubtless some who need the safety of categories will simply say ‘Sod it, bung it in Folk - that's near enough...' - except, of course, the normally eclectically-minded programmers of the Cambridge Folk Festival, who yet again have passed over one of Cambridge's most assured and established singer songwriters. Why? It's beyond me. But they're missing out.

The opening track, Wake Up, sets the tone - and doesn't. It begins with an ominous acoustic guitar strum, gradually joined by portentous bass and drums, sounding for all the world like the beginning of a Floyd-influenced prog rock album - so much so that by the time the singing starts you wouldn't be surprised to hear an agonised Thom Yorke giving it all he's got. Instead, you get some unexpectedly smooth vocal stylings from Mr Ecclestone, with a lyric curiously reminiscent of Björk (‘Wake up, wake up / Your silence is too threatening...')

But, just when you've got used to the driving percussion and insistent bass of the opener, track two wrongfoots you completely. A Little Bit Of Hope II takes us into more familiar, rootsy, singer songwriter territory - the kind of bittersweet, one-man-and-his-guitar, finger-picking story that Boo Hewerdine would be comfy with. OK, we've arrived. So you think.

Then he does it again. Radar brings back those punchy drums (which characterise much of this album), and has a brief sojourn in Eels territory before settling into a rolling, Ezio-esque melody, all carried on beautifully building waves of electric piano and organ - yet still manages to squeeze in vocal moments that evoke Sigur Ros. For me, this is one of the finest songs on the album, which, like so much of the material here, aches to be played live - yet is all done with an intense and intimate acoustic that puts it right in your head (‘coming in your ear' as Chorley FM would have it). It's almost as if, as you strive to take in the bigger picture, Ecki is smiling mischievously behind a fake Rolf Harris beard, saying ‘Can you tell what it is yet?'

And by the excellent Somewhere Beneath this highly eclectic mix of styles and influences is starting to come together nicely - while maintaining the element of surprise. A crisp, tricky drum pattern like something Calexico might have dreamt up, a poignant tune reminiscent of Kate Rusby with its hypnotic guitar and harmonium... Then Ecki unveils his secret weapon - the mellotron - and before we know it, we're having another Eels moment. But before you start thinking this is just the musical equivalent of Dead Ringers, let me clarify. These are all bands and artists that I love, and you'd never actually mistake Ecki for any of them. But isn't it one of the most satisfying things about music, hearing the influences in an original voice, the circumstantial collisions with other things - its connection to the wider world?

Those surprises and delights keep coming, from the out and out Indie moment in the world-weary I Can't Sing That Song Any More, to the straight, elegiac spiritual that is Gods and Heroes. Giving Up The Band - the final track on the album and its first single - is a beautifully understated and wonderfully mature meditation, shot through with Ecki's characteristically thoughtful melancholy, yet always stopping short of easy cynicism. But top honours must go to Passion, perhaps the most straightforward song of the lot, but also the best here. You may not be hearing it at the Folk Festival this year, but somewhere it's going to be doing great things live.

Considering the limitations imposed upon the recording (the whole album was recorded in one week) it's an incredibly ambitious affair - and by an artist who has not only written and performed the songs, but recorded and released it through his own record company, managed the distribution, booked the promoters and pluggers and even taken the superb cover photos.

Inevitably, some things don't quite come off. I didn't feel entirely convinced by the mix of slide guitar and pacey funk on Different Sky, for example, and sometimes you'd like Ecki's vocals to rock out more. But never mind that - these are songs that stay with you. Already after that first listen, three of these tunes - Passion, Somewhere Beneath and Radar - had moved into my brain, raided the fridge, and kicked off their shoes in front of the telly with a distinct air of ‘we're going nowhere for the whole summer'. Well, that's fine with me. Now I've got to know them a bit better, I couldn't be happier to give them house room. And anything that evokes Eels, Kate Rusby, Radiohead, Boo Hewerdine and Ezio - sometimes in the same song - has got to be worth a listen.

Writer: Toby Venables

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