Brighter

TrackAlbum / EP
Inside OutAround The World In Eighty Days EP
Tinsel HeartAround The World In Eighty Days EP
Around The World In 80 DaysAround The World In Eighty Days EP
Noah's ArkNoah's Ark EP
FrostbiteLaurel Mini-LP
Something To Call My OwnLaurel Mini-LP
Ocean SkyLaurel Mini-LP
So You SaidHalf-Hearted EP
Hope Springs EternalDisney 10" EP
EndDisney 10" EP

 

Brighter photo

Brighter (l to r): Alison Cousens, Keris Howard, Alex Sharkey

 

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Brighter playlist

 

Contributor: Rob Morgan

For some reason, there was a drought of Brighter records in the spring of 1991 and I was desperate to buy them. I had fallen in love with the Sarah record label during the summer of 1990, starting with the Temple Cloud compilation album, then expanding from there to releases by the Field Mice, the Orchids, St Christopher and more, collecting the singles and albums over time. But Brighter … they were elusive. I couldn’t find them in Spillers Records, or in Our Price, both of which usually had a decent stock of Sarah Records . There was no point looking in HMV or the newly opened Virgin Megastore. So what was I to do? There was only one way I’d get these records.

And so began my years of correspondence with Matt and Clare at Sarah Records. I sat down and wrote them a long letter, explaining how I came to find their label, how their critics – both in the music papers and fanzines – should be more lenient on them, and how much the music meant to me. Oh, and here’s a cheque for nine quid, can I have some Brighter records? A few weeks later, I received a package from Bristol – two Brighter 7 inch EPs, one Brighter 10 inch mini-LP and a long letter from Clare thanking me for cheering them up and including flyers for Orchids gigs and all kinds of things. A small package of immense value to me. Whether Matt and Clare knew that value, I’m not sure, but it started a series of letters back and forth from Penarth to Bristol, usually a cheque in one direction and a package of records in the other direction.

Brighter were a trio from Worthing with quite a unique sound for the time. The music was based around nimble basslines, lightly strummed acoustic guitars, arpeggios of electric guitars, maybe an occasional string synth swell or accurately placed piano note, a haze of reverb and an almost complete lack of drums. Keris Howard’s voice was small and fragile, but perfectly matched to his words of unworldliness and confusion. It was a beautiful combination and it was pretty much perfected on their debut EP.

Around The World In Eighty Days has four songs and each one is as perfect as the next. It could be said that nothing really happens, the mood is established on Inside Out and it continues through the other three songs, but each song has its own unique element to make this listener’s heart skip a beat. On Inside Out, it’s either the line “Though I don’t even know your name” or the chorus of “She told me to be myself, she told me to act my age”. On Tinsel Heart, it’s the matching of the personal and the political, the greed in the “stinking little island”, how Howard implores on the chorus:

Don’t you ever let them touch you
Don’t you ever let them in
In this corrupted little country
Don’t you ever let them win

The title track, Around The World In Eighty Days, is another move towards adulthood, but full of fears, “Everybody thinks they’re someone, that’s until the day they fall”, and then the heartstopping moment in the second verse – “And when I saw her, yeah I nearly fell over …”. As the song moves towards a conclusion, an unexpected drum machine pounds out a simple beat, while Keris sings, “And it sometimes feels the world is falling around my ears”. Finally there is some hope on Things Will Get Better, more lyrical gems from Howard and a more uptempo end to the EP.

The Noah’s Ark EP was slightly less surprising, as two of the three songs had appeared on Temple Cloud. The title track starts slow and gentle, a heartbreaking sigh of resignation – “some people travel around the world to show everyone they’re sure about themselves” – a pause of barely a second, then – “I can’t even find myself”. After two minutes there’s an avalanche of noise (by Brighter’s standards), waves of distorted guitars and a thumping drum pattern as Howard sings “Noah’s ark is leaving … She leaves today” and it sounds like the end of his world. I Don’t Think It Matters and Does Love Last Forever? are more spritely, the drum machine holding the songs together, quite standard indie pop of the time, and in a way I suppose a little too sickly sweet for my taste, but perfectly enjoyable. Both EPs were made solely by Howard but by now Brighter were performing live as a three piece band, including a peculiar cover of Depeche Mode’s Just Can’t Get Enough!

Laurel, though, was something else. A 10 inch mini-LP bathed in blue, eight songs of love, confusion and hope, and we’re back to a largely drum-free drift. There is a more nuanced sound now, a deeper mix of acoustic and electric guitars, and it’s quite lovely. Maybe the addition of Alison Cousens on guitar and Alex Sharkey on bass made a difference here. Again, picking highlights is like choosing a favourite child, each song has a heart stopping moment or a lyrical gem to make the spine tingle. I have no idea why the opening song is called Christmas but the opening line “Sometimes I feel so lost” is so absolutely perfect that it makes you wonder why they even bothered to continue. That’s all that’s needed to be said sometimes. Frostbite is even better; there’s piano adding bite and a surge of string synth towards the end which almost breaks my heart, if it wasn’t already broken by the chorus “And as I lay awake I wonder where life’s taking me”. Summer Becomes Winter is a reverie of happy memories, made bittersweet with the passing of time.

Something To Call My Own brings side one to a close with another heart-melting series of words and chords, extrapolating the thoughts of restlessness and worry into something almost anthemic. Flipping over to side two and Ocean Sky is a slap in the face – fast, drum machine led, jangling guitars aplenty and for a chorus, waves of distorted guitars leading to a coda where the noise almost overtakes every other element of the song. From there the album returns to its natural mid tempo drift of percussion free songs. Out To Sea seems quite calm at the prospect of drowning, Maybe offers some consolation of hope – “Maybe you will find the boy, maybe you will find the girl” – while closer Journey’s End brings the short album to a conclusion of kinds, closing on the lines, “But one thing keeps on haunting me, all I once believed”. Dreams dashed, future uncertain, confused and unsure … Yep, know that feeling.

Of course to some people these songs might seem fey, wimpy and sad. Caught in the wrong mood Keris’ vocal weaknesses can be off-putting, the languid drift of the music can have a somnambulist effect, and the general atmosphere can make you scream, For God’s sake man, pull yourself together!

But to me, avoiding adulthood’s steely gaze as I wondered what to do with my life after further education, these songs could not have sounded more on the nose. This was my music and I played these records over and over that summer.

In a way, Laurel was the peak of Brighter’s achievements. Not that it was all downhill from there, they still maintained a high standard in their other releases, but at the time the mini album felt like a small, but important, step forward for both band and label. Sarah Records were always characterised in the music press as jangling nonsense, boys crying at sunsets and unrequited adolescent love songs. Of course, this wasn’t true, but sometimes clichés are easier to maintain than actually listening to the music and understanding it. During 1991, there were occasions where Sarah Records albums received glowing reviews in the music press – For Keeps by the Field Mice, Make It Loud by the Wake, Unholy Soul by the Orchids and, indeed, Laurel were well received. Select magazine said, “Brighter aren’t old fashioned, they’re simply timeless”, Melody Maker claimed the band were “wistful, pretty (and) poignant”. Were Brighter about to become indie stars?

Of course not. Their next EP was issued in the autumn of 1991 and while it consolidated their style it offered hints of ill-feeling. The EP’s title track Half-Hearted felt like an intrusion into someone’s most private thoughts, a view of a love triangle from the wrong angle. Poppy Day was a sparkling gem of guitar pop, parping synth horns, optimistic harmony vocals and a glimpse of the kind of perfect pop they could turn their hand to if they so wished. On the other hand So You Said sounded like a bitter kiss off to a former partner, but by reading between the lines it seemed to be aimed at Brighter’s own record label. Accusations of selling souls, losing ideals and foolish dreams and stealing money – it wasn’t quite E.M.I. by the Sex Pistols or Paint A Vulgar Picture by the Smiths, but still quite shocking, especially as it was sung quite sweetly over layers of gorgeous guitar arpeggios. Anyway, Sarah Records couldn’t have minded that much, they still released it after all.

It was a long wait for a new Brighter release in 1992. This gave me the chance to hunt down two flexidiscs which showed Brighter sounding more Jesus And Mary Chain than Galaxie 500. Interesting but not essential. Eventually, a new five song 10 inch EP named Disney was issued in the autumn. This was a more muscular Brighter; Alex Sharkey’s bass was more forceful, the drum programming was more complex and upfront, there was a more layered mix of electric and acoustic guitars, with more overdrive in places. EP opener Killjoy was quite powerful, not something a listener would have associated with Brighter even 18 months earlier. British Summertime was a percussion free drift, but now the haze of reverb on the early records has been lifted to bring a clarity to the sound.

Hope Springs Eternal was perfect jangle pop while Keris searches for comfort in a world where the possibilities of change have disappeared. From one angle it could be about a relationship souring, but from another angle it can be seen as an extended allegory for the feeling of hopelessness after the Conservative Party’s election victory in April 1992. “I guess it’s not important to you, well it’s everything to me … Cos finally they have won, or has my hope just gone?”. Never Ever is a frank look back at the end of a relationship, the repeated chorus of “Goodbye” makes that plain, but there’s little hints of hope, Keris almost begging at the conclusion, “And I know it’s so stupid and utterly foolish but I never even said ‘Are we still friends?'”. Finally, End seems to follow on from Never Ever, facing up to the finality of the break up, while still hoping for a return, “But if I’ve got it wrong … maybe you’ll come running, say ‘I missed you'”. Is there redemption? It’s unclear, but hope springs eternal.

When Disney was released, Brighter toured the UK to promote it with Blueboy as support and I caught the tour in Manchester. But due to frustrating circumstances I had to miss Brighter themselves, although I did sneak into the soundcheck. I had a train to catch, though the train was eventually 45 minutes late. But still I introduced myself to Clare and we chatted briefly (she was amazed I’d travelled from South Wales to Manchester for the gig). And Blueboy were amazing. But I had seen Brighter perform a few songs and that was enough.

Brighter photo

At the end of 1992 I bought the fourth issue of the Waaaaah fanzine which not only had interviews with Blueboy and Northern Picture Library (former Field Mice) but also a Brighter feature. This interview hinted at problems with Sarah Records, mentioned unreleased songs like Nothing At All and Wallflower and exuded a general feeling of ennui, like they had given up on the band. It was little surprise then when a few months later, a Sarah Records newsletter told me that the band had split up. In a way they had achieved all they needed to. Maybe being tied down to generic Sarah Records reviews in the music press had taken its toll, or arguments with their label about getting songs released. Howard would move on to other music projects such as Hal and Harper Lee, and would become bass player for Trembling Blue Stars, Bob Wratten’s major post-Field Mice project.

Over time the stature of Sarah Records would grow, as memories of bad reviews in the NME faded into the distance and new indie pop fans came to listen without prejudice to the music. Brighter’s small but perfectly formed catalogue of records would grow in value and become cherished for their music. Eventually Matinee Records would compile two CDs – Singles 1989-1992 (all four EPs) and Out To Sea (Laurel plus 12 outtakes, flexidisc songs and unreleased music) and Howard gave a few interviews to put the music in context. It seems that Sarah Records wanted Brighter to maintain their drum free reverb soaked sound, while the band were playing more drum machine led, uptempo numbers. If I Could See and Wallflower (both recorded during the Laurel sessions) would have spoilt the bliss of the album but would have worked as a separate single perhaps. While some songs from the scrapped first attempt at recording Laurel were hit and miss, one song – Amy Never Knew – was an absolute gem and as good as their best songs. But any arguments about decisions made in the 90s made little difference in the 21st century. It was just great to have the songs available again, and in a move towards a digital future all the singles and Laurel are available on streaming services like Spotify (see our playlist) and as downloadable purchases on Bandcamp (see link below). If you love the music then please consider purchasing it so the artists can receive their due.

Brighter made some of the most perfect post-adolescence music, an eternal end-of-sixth-form feeling of incoming uncertainty and a faint feeling of melancholy for the passing of time. Perfect summer music then. Listen, enjoy and wallow.

 

 

Special thanks to Ian Foster for the scans of the “Waaaaah” fanzine interview – much appreciated. (RM)

Brighter releases
Around The World In Eighty Days – Sarah 19 (1989)
Noah’s Ark – Sarah 27 (1990)
Laurel – Sarah 404 (1991)
Half-Hearted – Sarah 56 (1991)
Disney 10″ – Sarah 69 (1992)

Brighter on Bandcamp

Brighter on Discogs

Sarah Records – Brighter archives

Keris Howard interview – Penny Black Music (2006)

Brighter biography (AllMusic)

Rob Morgan writes about the music he loves for a number of websites including Everything Indie Over 40 and his own blog A Goldfish Called Regret – he also creates podcasts. He tweets @durutti74.

TopperPost #806

1 Comment

  1. Andrew Shields
    Aug 6, 2019

    Rob, thanks for this great introduction to some fabulous music. Love the guitar sound on their records – thanks again.

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