Caution Horses – City Lights (pop-rock)
self released, 2012, CD album, 30m 1s
I guess ‘prolific’ would not be a good adjective for Caution Horses, who released their sophomore Accidental Music five years ago, which came along eleven years after the debut album Skywire. The contrast with some of the artists I review is almost absurd, but does this tell us anything about the music? Frankly, no. I mean, the latter two albums sound pretty carefully constructed, but I doubt that’s a function of the intervals at which they were released… What it does tell us is that this music is made by people who are busy with the rest of their lives, working in the little time available to them, for the sheer love of it. The same could be said about much of what I review, but most of it sounds a bit less approachable than Caution Horses, who could have been quite commercial in a particular place and time (fifteen or so years before their first album came out…)
The songs on City Lights are tightly orchestrated in guitar driven arrangements of a sort that might be attract the irritating descriptor ‘soft rock’, but sound more to me like a species of post-punk, à la Joe Jackson. A prominent, mid-rangy bass weaves sinewy counter-melodies through a weft of cleanly recorded and crisply played drums, while bright and rhythmically precise (acoustic and electric) guitar fills out the harmony; a variety of other elements are added to this basic structure, such as analogue synth and multi-tracked trumpet in ‘Sound of America’, a guitar and scat unison solo in ‘Letting Go’, electric piano and flute in ‘So What?’ or organ in ‘Start A War’. On paper that sounds like a recipe for an elaborate mess, but all these additional elements are coherently integrated into the core rhythm section sound, and the overall sound is far from overcrowded. Andy Heasman’s vocals have a distinctly early eighties sound, with a nasally resonant delivery somewhat reminiscent of Roland Gift (if rather less mannered).
The material is built around strong melodic hooks, with harmonic structures that are straightforward, but relate to the vocals in a sophisticated way; it is arranged with a good deal of taste, with bespoke elements for each song (such as the violin in ‘Straight Lines’), that never sound like novelty effects, and never interfere with the music’s stylistic character. The songs are disciplined essays in pop concision, that make their points and move on with very little in the way of milking; self-indulgence is not on the agenda here, although every player gets the chance to demonstrate their chops, and the playing is noticeably excellent throughout. The listener is not directed to any places of particular emotional discomfort, or to contemplate any extremities of experience, but there is plenty to engage with, and a progressive sense of narrative within and between the songs.
Caution Horses have recorded a collection of sophisticated and intelligent pop songs, that while they may be unlikely to start any revolutions, offer a deep and nuanced listening experience to anyone who cares to pay sufficient attention. The band’s creative practice doesn’t offer any particular stylistic novelty, but it has to be said that not many people are making this sort of sound these days, and the early eighties new-wave pop-rock that this harks back to is, in my view, some of the most clear sighted and precisely judged music to have graced the commercial milieu. That razor sharp intensity was partly a matter of youthful arrogance, and City Lights exudes a maturer, gentler sensibility, but the clarity of that era is here in spades, not just in the writing and playing, but in the open, high-contrast production. Sounds like these do not just happen: a great deal of effort and expertise is in evidence, in every aspect of the album’s construction. This is a great sounding, engaging, unpretentious and generally very likeable record.