Bleak but compelling desert tomb-stone Americana engraved with whimsical European folk-noir.
OK, let’s get the ‘Is-that-really-what-they’re-called?’ reaction out of the way, given that a band name as strikingly odd as Son of the Velvet Rat feels like an open invitation for cheesy puns. But never fear, after this paragraph, there won’t be even the faintest squeak of a rodent-related joke, and that’s partly because ‘Solitary Company’ is way too laden down with atmospheric melancholy and existential angst of the folk-noir variety to allow itself more than a very occasional flash of humour.
“Raindrops on the windowpane
I hope they never dry”
is one typically ‘upbeat’ observation on ‘Solitary Company’ the latest offering from Georg Altziebler and Heike Binder, the Austrian duo who comprise SOTVR and who have been specialists in wry, mournful music ever since they settled in one of California’s alternative culture capitals, Joshua Tree in the Mojave desert, way back in 2006.
Appropriately enough given the blend of backgrounds, ‘Solitary Company’, SOTVR’s ninth album, occupies a strange, but mostly captivating, intersection between gloomy, gloopy, semi-acoustic old-time European folk music and cabaret and the more psychedelic, surreal side of Americana. This is no lo-fi homespun effort, either: there are around two dozen credited musicians for the album’s ten tracks, with violinist Bob Furgo, who played on the later Leonard Cohen albums, a notable contributor. Binder and Altziebler have ten different kinds of instrument and singing credits between them, too.
In less skilful hands, such rich instrumental resources would threaten to ‘Solitary Company’ into an overly complicated or unwieldy beast. But in fact – and this is no mean achievement – the sound is notably Spartan rather than overwhelming, with the crunchy electric guitar solo growling away in the background of ‘When The Lights Go Down’ or Furgo’s spine-tingling but lowkey spirals of violin solos on ‘Alicia’ two of many good examples. That low-density backing sound also means Altziebler’s bone-dry, brittle voice doesn’t get pushed out the spotlight, which is a good thing, considering the number of powerful, sharp-edged observations – social and emotional – and word-plays you’d be missing otherwise.
“This is just another tourist town
Even the rain is watered down
Not just the wine.”
is Altziebler’s ultra-concise assessment of one city in ‘Alicia’, the opening track, as well one of those few moments of humour on the album. Meanwhile in the last song, ‘Remember Me’, he sums up a fisherman’s memories of his long-departed children in just four hugely evocative lines that capture everything from loneliness and loss to, unexpectedly, hope.
“Their voices still echo in the cry of the seagull
Their toys are still out there in the autumn rain
I still hear their little feet on the staircase
And I know in my heart I will see them again”
There are often glimpses of defiance in even the bleakest of circumstances on ‘Solitary Company’, like in ‘11 & 9′ when Altzabie insists there’s a future for himself and his partner even when fortune doesn’t smile on them.
“We’re gonna lay it all on 11 & 9
We’re gonna lose our money for love & its gonna be fine
Spending the rest on a meal & a bottle of wine”
Curiously enough, probably the weakest track is the title song. At over six minutes, it’s by far the longest of the album, and has a suffocatingly slow-paced delivery that rather than gaining power or gravitas as a result, simply fizzles out with a seemingly endless repetition of its three-word chorus. But in general, for all the atmosphere of eerie decadence that ripples through ‘Solitary Company’ – water lilies that wither and die, bloodstains on the bedframe, skeletons taking your hand as you climb on the Ferris Wheel, miles underground – there’s an elegant, slightly mischievous, musical power and charm steering this album, too, that keeps it firmly in the heights.