self released, 2011, DD EP, 18m 24s
£name your price
Paul Littlewood has a signature arrangement style, a way of doing songs. Simple, syncopated guitar parts are layered with glitchy electronic percussion, combinations of short repeated phrases accumulating into complex textures. There are dynamic variations, but over a limited range, for the most part, textural density is proportional to emotional intensity, and that’s about it. No fancy tricks, no strings, no choirs, no clever harmonic substitutions, no production wizardry: just subtly changing low-key textures and a voice. It’s such an unassuming sound that it’s easy to miss how original and distinctive Littlewood’s voice as an arranger is, particularly when his physical voice is so very far from unassuming.
Sometimes it’s the arranger’s job to hide their craft, and simply to foreground the song and the performance, although that doesn’t always work in all styles – in riff or beat based genres the arrangement itself is just as much the point of the song as the melody and lyrics. On Butterfly House the question is moot: with vocal performances like these the arrangements would have to be ludicrously intrusive to compete.
These are five very fine songs, which use lyrical simplicity and a restrained melodic palette to articulate a convincingly ambiguous sense of personal experience. But I doubt I’d think so if they were badly performed. If they were rattled out carelessly by a vocalist of indifferent quality, I probably wouldn’t get them, because this isn’t the sort of material that waves its accomplishment in your face. Sometimes songs serve as a pretext for a recorded performance, and sometimes a production is carefully crafted to serve a song, but in this case it’s a bit of both.
Paul Littlewood’s voice is strong but fragile, an expressive countertenor that is full of emotion without betraying the slightest hint of sentimentality or melodrama. The unmediated communication of emotion is an illusion which music lovers crave, and Littlewood shows himself to be a consummate illusionist. I don’t mean to imply any lack of sincerity: just the opposite. The honesty and directness with which he sings these songs makes it easy to forget that we are listening to words and instruments, rather than the contents of his soul. There’s a sense of emotional immanence, as though he were on the verge of tears, but without sounding lachrymose. Without using any of the usual techniques that overtly signal ‘I am singing emotionally’ (excessive dynamic contrasts, complicated melismas, warbling vibrato etc.), Littlewood cuts straight to the chase, and sings with a passion and commitment that dominate the EP.
Simplicity is a touchstone for this recording: simple beats, simple riffs, simple production, and simple performances, that are put together with a complexity and originality unusual outside of more explicitly experimental territories. Butterfly House does things that are usually done with an unvarnished acoustic guitar, which is to say, with a lot less imagination, and because it does them so uniquely, it says things you won’t hear said elsewhere. This is not music that forces its meanings on the listener, but if you give it some attention, and some time, you may well find these transparently beautiful sounds become an integral part of your landscape.