Alison Statton and Spike – Bimini Twist: “A document of two talented musicians easing themselves back into the water”
London Student recently interviewed Alison Statton. Read that interview here to learn more about the background of this album, and her long and varied career.
More time has elapsed between this record and Alison Statton’s last (1997’s The Shady Tree), than elapsed between that record and her very first, Young Marble Giants’ hugely-influential Colossal Youth from 1980. Colossal Youth, a giant among cult albums, had many features that were ground-breaking for post-punk in 1980: its softness, its pairing of deconstructed rock guitar riffs with drum machines, its austere simplicity. It helped to lay the ground for new wave, indie, trip-hop, even The XX. But foremost in its magic formula was Statton’s entrancing voice – her cool calmness reflected the negative space running through the music, but her innocence and simplistic stories seemed threatened by the brittle, metallic surfaces enclosing her, creating an absorbing anxious tension. Colossal Youth was guitar music stripped to expose its bones, an inverse-punk to rebel against the rebels without siding with the establishment, and it remains astonishing to this day. But the sound also flowed quite naturally from Statton and the Moxham brothers’ whims and personalities – they used a drum machine because they couldn’t be bothered with drummers, and it sounded so strange because it was homemade. Statton’s voice was quiet and reserved because she was a shy and unconfident singer.
So after they split (which first occurred before they’d even recorded Colossal Youth), it’s no surprise that as these young artists grew and their tastes changed, so did the music they made. Stuart Moxham formed The Gist, and Statton formed with Weekend with guitarist Spike; both explored more complex, layered music. But Weekend’s following were even smaller than Young Marble Giants’, and after their implosion Statton worked on various projects, including two albums with Spike – Tidal Blues in 1994, and The Shady Tree in 1997. After 21 years away from the industry spent raising her family and working fulfillingly as a chiropractor, Statton has returned, with Spike, on Bimini Twist. While this is a million miles from Colossal Youth, there’s no denying the musical talent at work here on this varied, if comfortable album.
This album was largely made for the artists’ own sakes – most of these tracks are little more than demos written after the pair floated the idea of writing together again, just for fun. And every note on the album was played, recorded, and mixed by Statton and Spike themselves. Sadly much about this album doesn’t endear itself to critical acclaim – it’s not transgressive, it’s not formally inventive, it isn’t art that’s trying to make any kind of statement. Plus there seems to be an unwritten rule that says older musicians can’t make great art unless they’re dying (compare the critical reception of Bowie, Cohen, and Cash’s final albums to those they made 10 years earlier), presumably because by that stage of their lives all successful artists are bourgeoisie retirees who, ironically, seemingly need to feel the lure of death to imbue their work with some vitality, or at least give that impression to their soft-socialist critics. But nevertheless, I’m happy to accept that good music, which we go to for comfort and happiness, can come from a place of comfort and happiness itself, rather than exclusively one of struggle and resistance. So apprehend Bimini Twist’s surface qualities rather than searching for depth and innovation, and you’ll find it is nice, it is pleasant, it is comfortable – and those are not insults. It’s not vital, nor cool – that’s not what Statton and Spike are going for.
The best tracks here are very nice indeed. ‘Scuttling Through’ recalls Joni Mitchell, with Statton’s vocals tending to suddenly fly up the scale. Her delicate descriptions of “A quietened place of yellow moon,” and “Timid white flowers, closed to darkened hours,” marry nicely with the Spike’s finger-picked guitar and gentle piano, which are entwined together carefully. The beguiling opener ‘Just Us Two’ is similar. The opening layers woozily-bending guitar parts that create an atmosphere almost redolent of a videogame theme. It’s a touch discordant, but that means that when vibrant major chords on an acoustic guitar come in to herald the first verse, their brightness is the all the more pleasurable. “Quick, quick, slow/ We didn’t know/ How to lead and follow” – Statton uses the metaphor of a couple learning to dance to trace their increasing intimacy and love for one another.
It’s subtle, but those chords are plucked out in a samba rhythm – and many of the later tracks turn to samba for inspiration too. There’s ‘Sixty Second Window’ which gradually contorts itself into a Latin style after a sparse opening, as Statton righteously takes down a suitor who tries to impress her with lies – “Creating a persona was a total waste of time/ With very little outcome from spinning me a line”. ‘Crossroads’ employs samba rhythms too, and Statton depicts a person “Haunted by regrets, taunted by memories” – much of this album considers how the past impacts on the present. And that’s something that’s likely to be on Statton’s mind. In an interview conducted by London Student, she spoke of how it had been a life-long journey for her to find contentment and move on from the anxieties of her early 20s. And that’s another thing to remember with Bimini Twist – if Statton and Spike sound comfortable, even indulgent, they have earned it after almost 40 years in a brutal industry that has taken their talents and often given them little in return. They have every right to celebrate where they are now.
Statton is also a lover of jazz, and some of these tracks have a smoky, late-night jazz café feel. Foremost is ‘Distraction’, which elegantly builds layers above a tango-style bassline. It also shows off Spike’s not inconsiderable skills as an arranger: he thickens and thins the texture with strings and backing vocals before withdrawing into a core of vocals and guitar in the final verse, but just when the track appears to die away, it returns with a lively coda at a faster tempo with drum machine, fiddle, brass, and carnival percussion. Closer ‘Sleepless’ is also jazzy but more restrained, a kind of sad lullaby – “incandescent moon, you do not suit my mood, you are much too bright for such a dark and troubled night”. And ‘Curse or Pray’ also plays the jazz suit, Spike popping the drum machine’s cymbal hits just slightly out of sync with where you’d expect it, to provide a frisson of subliminal stimulation. Here Statton proves, if proof were needed, that her years away from the recording studio haven’t dulled her poetry: “You stare down reflecting on the damned water’s edge, its monotonous rejection of the muddy silted beds”.
But some tracks do bely the duo’s rustiness, and inexperience with modern studio techniques. That’s most apparent on ‘Open Portal’, whose programmed drums sound cheap rather than lo-fi. The song’s sunny chord sequence is paired with a guitar line that is so happy and simplistic it comes off as wet behind the ears. ‘Under Cover’ is incredibly similar and comes across like another painfully forced smile – a whimsical portrait of a man convinced he’s a secret agent that suffers from excessive musical jollity and that tacky drum machine again.
As a document of two talented musicians easing their way back into the water, Bimini Twist does pretty much all that can be expected of it. Come at this from the wrong angle though, i.e. expecting the brilliance of Young Marble Giants, or the style of Weekend, or the under-rated trip-hop of The Shady Tree, and you’ll be disappointed – but that would overlook this album’s merits. Come for casual, comfortable listening and you’ll find interesting ideas, musically and lyrically, throughout.