Ordinary voices

Ordinary voices get so little time and exposure that we tend to forget what they sound like, despite the fact that, by definition, they’re the voices that we hear every day. Somehow it comes to seem that the kind of speech we hear in TV dramas, in the lyrics of songs, in political speeches, in journalism, in podcasts, and elsewhere in public discourse, is the baseline of verbal communication. Only that kind of privileged speech grabs our attention and sticks in our memories, and unless we make a special effort to notice it, the kind of speech we actually use to negotiate our daily existence disappears, so normal, so commonplace that it’s impossible to hear it—like the ticking of a clock swallowed by the silence of a long afternoon in the front room. On those rare occasions when such speech is foregrounded, in the naturalistic dialogue of a Mike Leigh movie, for example, it becomes invested with a kind of hyper-reality. In its very normality, it becomes strange. In its foregrounding, it becomes vivid and powerful, in a way that the overt power of formal, privileged speech struggles to emulate.

This foregrounding of the prosaic is the central creative conceit of the album The Other Place by Billie Bottle and the Multiple, which I’ve been listening to intensively for the past several months. Bad Elephant Music have been kind enough to leave me on their digital promo list even after I’ve largely stopped trying to write about music, and although quite a lot of their releases aren’t really up my street, a steady stream of very interesting records comes my way. The Other Place is one of the most interesting so far, a pretty and accomplished latter-day Canterbury-sound jazz-prog concept album, whose lyrical texts elevate it from torch-bearing to true originality. Billie Bottle and her principal collaborator Martine Waltier made their way from Devon to Westminster (via Kent, apparently) in the run up to the 2015 general election, busking, and inviting members of the public to answer the question ‘who’s got the power?’ It’s not entirely obvious precisely what procedures were applied to the resulting vox pop, but one way or another the outcome is a set of found (or found-sounding) lyrics that incorporate all the uncertainties, repetitions, ums, ahs, and inconsistencies of real speech, and real political opinion. There’s a compassion and a tenderness to the way the record represents struggles for understanding, an open and non-judgemental appreciation of the many different ways in which ordinary people confront the irresoluble conundrums of contemporary political discourse. None of these voices belongs to anyone who thinks they know the answers (although the narrator of ‘Gremlin’ seems to have a fairly well-realised philosophy), and the record celebrates their open-minded, non-systematically questioning encounters with the intersecting wave-fronts of political propaganda and debate. Frequently what emerges is an unassuming radicalism that would look considerably more assuming if it were converted into a programme for government, or even into a fixed opinion. There’s a positive version of Englishness to be found here, one that isn’t founded on xenophobia, nostalgia or colonial triumphalism, and that can’t really be summed up by reducing it any further than it has been to fit on a CD length album.

It took some real skill to produce a set of lyrics, that function as such, and yet preserve the rhythms and ad hoc intellectual meanderings of ordinary speech—probably more skill than it usually takes to write lyrics out of the clear blue sky (as though any creative work was ever done out of the clear blue sky). It also results in a set of songs with much more clearly situated narrators than the norm, and I have to say that I find most songs’ narrators to be unsatisfyingly generic characters, usually defined by a single emotional colour. This lyric-making skill is entirely matched by the music-making skills on display here, which sit comfortably within the Canterbury tradition (jazz and rock vocabulary, gestural interludes, open structures, wryly humorous, accessibly experimental) while sounding like their own thing, rather than any kind of attempt to imitate Gong, Caravan, or Soft Machine. Billie Bottle is a real Canterbury torch-bearer, however, and she and members of the Multiple have worked at times with veterans of that scene’s first flowering in the late 60s and early 70s. For me they are more than worthy inheritors of that tradition, and this record is one of the most genuinely moving pieces of work I’ve heard recently that could fall under the broad rubric of progressive rock.

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