Farm Hand : International Dreams03.11.17 : Shape Records (Cat No: SHAPE032)
Farm hand is the chosen recording name of Mark Daman Thomas, who has for nearly a decade been a quarter of Islet, a collective band based in Cardiff, and accurately described by Pitchfork as "unhinged, euphoric, wonderful". Radical in form and art, Islet have no fixed roles or lead singer, and their last EP, Liquid Half Moon reaffirmed their status as masters of left-field psychedelic pop.
International Dreams is Daman Thomas' first solo project, and reflects a recent retreat from the city to his Mid-Wales homeland - much of the music was recorded in a barn on his family's farm, Pontvane in Radnorshire, a location which also explains the project's name.
The album has been allegedly inspired by the rural environment Daman Thomas found himself back in, co-incidentally a short physical distance from that which influenced Toby Hay's Welsh Music Prize shortlisted The Gathering; sonically distinct, what the two albums do share is a rare meditative quality. It is worth mapping out the background before listening - there is an insightful interview from M Magazine about the making of the International Dreams here.
On a first run through it is evident that each of the ten tracks is a vivid aural collage, composed swiftly working with producer Rob Jones (Sweet Baboo, Slow Club), and retaining a definite immediacy from the process - as Daman Thomas has explained:
"It was all recorded pretty quickly and instinctively. As I'm sure you can probably tell, I don't tend to agonise over decisions or want to tweak stuff for hours. I don't really like singing into posh mics in vocal booths. Luckily Rob was on board with that and had boxes full of weird little mics and circuit bent pedals. We had a lot of fun with those."
He has also suggested that the biggest influence on the album was the brilliant 'provocateur pop' of US Girls, aka Toronto-based artist Meg Remy - who was described by Artforum as "a woman who clearly spends a lot of time in her apartment with the shades drawn, (with) a bunch of drum machines, effects pedals, a mixer, and a Walkman". Listen to US Girls, switch the suggested apartment confinement for a farm shed, add in some discovered sound from objects to hand, and you have a comparison that rings very true.
What also comes to the light with repeated playing is that there is a persistent, subtle and spare mood of melancholic humour throughout these recordings. This is most overt on the title track, International Dreams - a homage to Mark's "continued desire and preparedness to play international football for Wales", which is also the one song in the whole set you might find yourself singing the chorus of in the bath. The semi-obscured seventies psychedelic roots of this music owe as much to Oliver Postgate as to Pink Floyd.
Mostly built with drum machine, synth, samples and vocals that are characterised by repetition and chant, the album opens with a linked pair of compositions. Precision is a one minute long unsettling, atmospheric preamble (which sounds like a mournful Viking lur with quietly intruding static echo) to Solutions, which features a single keyboard loop over muted percussion, and a repeated fragmentary lyric "precision, precision, solutions, solutions", the four words a concatenation from two of Daman Thomas' commonest inner monologues.
Precision/Solutions are followed by the title track; after its humour, the remaining seven works offer contrasting ambiences. To reinforce the Postgate reference Happy Landing is the Clangers let loose with an engaging beat, whereas Nettle Soup (from experience, of all the soups the one you should not taste too soon after adding the main ingredient) is a world of its own - a wistful and pastoral drift, the vocal distant in the mix.
New Kitchens has a drum machine click like distant rainfall, and after a looped keyboard, an unexpectedly lovely repeated short melody. Moving Hills experiments disconcertingly but successfully with discordance, Fall Into Flight is a simple, mouldering Gregorian chant effectively mutated by an insistent beat and Search Engines is a brief intense fragment, a challenging doxology of "I never do anything unless I Google it first" over a coruscating drum.
I Hope She Knows closes the set, a darkly distorted pop song with a marvellous sixties-sounding organ, then a seeping slow flood of electronica.
And that is it - just shy of half an hour of new music that suggests it may be easier to experiment freely when there is time and a landscape around you governed by natural cycles, rather than in a cacophonous city; International Dreams is an essential continuation of Wales' tradition of rurally honed psychedelia.
International Dreams is available on limited edition vinyl and as a download.
Live Dates : 4th November - Spillers Records, Cardiff (album launch) / 14th November - The Social, London (Huw Stephens Presents) /
6th December - The Lexington, London (supporting Sweet Baboo)
FARM HAND I Solutions