Guillemots

TrackAlbum / EP
We're HereThrough The Windowpane
RedwingsThrough The Windowpane
Go AwayFrom The Cliffs EP
Big DogRed
Don't Look DownRed
So Brand NewFly Yellow Moon
Dancing In The Devil's ShoesWalk The River
Up On The RideHello Land!
BirdwatcherBirdwatcher (Episode One)
São PauloThrough The Windowpane

Guillemots photo

Guillemots (l to r): Aristazabal Hawkes (double bass), MC Lord Magrão (guitar etc), Fyfe Dangerfield (vocals, guitar, keyboards), Greig Stewart (drums)

 

 

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Guillemots playlist

 

 

Contributor: Joel Dear

I was fifteen years old when I saw Guillemots at Cardiff University. The gig took place on Thursday the 26th of October, 2006. The support acts were a jazzy electronica outfit called Brickwerk and a shoegazey country band called Last Town Chorus. The latter’s set included a cover of Modern Life by David Bowie. During the main event, a variety of little cartoons – featuring a dancing penguin, a sofa with legs and a talking plant, among other things – were projected onto a screen behind the band.

I’m able to recount these details not because I have a photographic memory but because I was, at the time, in the habit of writing little reviews of every show I attended. Over a decade later, I still have my 2006 ‘gig diary’: a battered blue notebook whose pages are filled with my scruffy handwriting, as well as an assortment of cherished photos and ticket stubs.

Here’s a sample of what fifteen-year-old Joel had to say about that Guillemots gig:

The performance was liberally studded with magic moments. At one point, Fyfe jumped up on the monitor and raved along to some techno demo he’d ‘found on his keyboard’. A Norwegian roadie was celebrating his birthday; he was handed a cake and forced in front of the microphone to sing a traditional Norwegian song. There were bubble machines, disco balls, Christmas lights, fuzzy TVs and masked people in feather boas, and the band went from strength to strength. My faith in the life-changing properties of live music is restored.

Admittedly, I was prone to hyperbole back in 2006, but I stand by that glowing review. ‘Ecstatic’ is the word that comes to mind, thinking back; that late October evening is one I dearly wish I could relive, and Through The Windowpane (Guillemots’ first full-length album) remains one of my all-time favourites.

Which isn’t to say that Guillemots fizzled after their debut. Yes, I could easily have populated this top ten list exclusively with tracks from Windowpane, but plenty of their later work is just as moving and just as worthy of your attention.

So here is my attempt to boil the band’s whole colourful catalogue – four LPs and a couple of EPs, plus a solo album and a ‘series of broadcasts’ from frontman Fyfe Dangerfield – down to just ten exceptional songs.

 

We’re Here is the track that sold me on the Guillemots. I’d already heard Trains To Brazil and Made-Up Lovesong #43, both of which I liked—but it was this song’s soaring chorus that sent me rushing out to buy Through The Windowpane when the CD came out in the summer of ‘06. And thank goodness I did!

 

Through The Windowpane had killer singles, but many of its deep cuts were even better. Redwings is a highlight that starts soft, then builds to a bombastic, brassy catharsis; it would have made a superb closing track, but on Through The Windowpane it’s merely the end of Act One. The album’s actual finale is … well, we’ll get to that later.

 

Given how immediately and how thoroughly I adored Through The Windowpane, it took me a surprisingly long time to go back and check out From The Cliffs – the EP that came out a few months before the album – but I’m glad I eventually got around to it. Its standout track Go Away originally appeared on the Trains To Brazil single, and if I may reach for an old music writing cliché, it says a lot when a band can afford to B-side a song of this quality. While no less colourful, Go Away has a rather darker aura than just about anything else in the band’s repertoire; that opening hook is just about as ominous as I’ve ever heard a clarinet sound, and the sense of menace only builds from there.

 

I seem to recall that Red, the second Guillemots LP, got a rather baffled reception when it came out in March 2008. Big Dog in particular raised eyebrows; what did the band responsible for We’re Here and its swooning ilk think they were doing making pop-slash-R&B music? (“Dreadful,” said BBC reviewer Rowan Collinson of this song. “It won’t be giving Timbaland any sleepless nights.”) For my part, though, I’m glad Red did its own thing rather than trying to be ‘Back Through The Windowpane’, and Big Dog – which I actually rather like – is boldly emblematic of this album’s greater focus on booty-shaking rhythmic elements. Besides, if you’re not keen on this side of the Guillemots, Red’s enormously eclectic tracklist is bound to have something that’s more your cup of tea: try the celebratory Cockateels, or perhaps the romantic, slow-burning Words. Or there’s my favourite track from Red

 

I love this track even more than I love some of the songs off Through The Windowpane – and funnily enough, it wouldn’t have worked on Through The Windowpane at all. From the moment that bass ostinato arrives at 0:16, I’m under; the first half of Don’t Look Down is a dream anyway, but then the track pulls two tricks, one after the other, that really set it apart. Firstly, just before the two-and-a-half-minute mark, Fyfe yelps the song’s title, and the band pull the rug out from under you. Suddenly, you’re standing on nothing … and then, at 3:03, they snap back to the verse melody from before. Yet now, against all those unhinged beats, it sounds desperate, frenzied, or maybe even – here comes that word again – ecstatic. A masterful few minutes.

 

To tell you the truth, I was a bit disappointed by Fly Yellow Moon when I first heard it. But Fyfe Dangerfield’s debut solo album has an easygoing early-summer warmth that has grown on me a lot since its release in 2010. Maybe it’s because I’m married now, but the loved-up likes of So Brand New seem to resonate far more ten years later. The songwriting showcased on Fly Yellow Moon is a good deal simpler than what we’d heard on Through The Windowpane and Red (not to mention the utterly bananas Of The Night EP, which is definitely worth seeking out despite my failure to represent it within this list), but simplicity can be nice sometimes, no?

 

Walk The River is my least favourite Guillemots album. Its somewhat murky production makes it a less pleasurable listen than Red; it’s a less satisfying whole than its successor, Hello Land!; and while it’s only about five minutes longer than Through The Windowpane (with the same number of tracks), it has a weirdly stodgy quality that makes that difference feel quite a bit greater. Nevertheless, Walk The River is still home to four or five songs that are really, really, really great, and Dancing In The Devil’s Shoes is the best of them. It’s the perfect slow build, with Fyfe Dangerfield’s songwriting at its most dramatically romantic: “And I wish your face was just your face, and not the moonlight’s chosen resting place. How can the world compare?”

 

In May 2012, Fyfe Dangerfield went on the radio and announced that Guillemots would be releasing four albums – one for each season – before the end of the year. Hello Land! was the first instalment in a series whose second, third and fourth parts sadly never materialised; the ‘four seasons, four albums’ business went the way of Sufjan Stevens’ Fifty States Project, but Hello Land! is still a fab little album that I reach for every time spring comes around again. The nine-minute Byebyeland is a wordless high point, but my very favourite bit of Hello Land! is Up On The Ride, a song that starts out shy and grows more sure-footed as it goes along, eventually culminating in a pleading, slightly melancholy chorus (“stay with me my baby, I know I’m not an easy ride …”) that shouldn’t chime with the song’s generally upbeat, fresh-start feel … and yet, by some alchemy, it totally does.

 

Now. For a long time, I thought I’d heard the last of Fyfe Dangerfield – Hello Land! was followed by six years of virtual silence and, at this point, one doubts that its summer, autumn and winter siblings will ever see the light of day. In 2018, however, Fyfe resurfaced, promising (via his new website Channels May Change) a series of twelve weekly broadcasts under the title Birdwatcher. These were uploaded, one by one, over the course of that autumn, with the final one materialising on Christmas Eve. I very much enjoyed listening along over the course of those twelve weeks, not least because one never could guess what each new episode of Birdwatcher would contain: each one is a twenty-minute(ish) mixture of songs, soundscapes, and spoken-word stuff, but whereas one week you might find yourself nodding along to the epic Llorando or blissing out to Honeysuckle Jubilee, a week later you might be greeted by an advert for revitalising Channels May Change ‘showerbombs’ or a little play about the belligerent Mr Peregrine making a speech in the Channels May Change restaurant. Presumably, Fyfe Dangerfield was sitting on a lot of unreleased material after those years away, and Birdwatcher was a truly unique way to put some of it out into the world; I’ve included the title song here, Birdwatcher, from Episode One as a sort of gateway, but you really should download all twelve episodes (they’re free!) and hear them for yourself. They’re unlike anything else I’ve come across.

 

But how could I not finish back where I started, with Through The Windowpane? São Paulo – the album’s grand finale – is nearly twelve minutes long, but boy does it use that time. And when that (yes) ecstatic climax arrives and the band pull out all the stops for the big finish, it really feels earned. I’ve listened to a lot of albums over the years, but São Paulo remains – without qualification – my favourite closing track of all time. It gives everything and holds nothing back; it’s the perfect end to an absolutely sublime album from a thoroughly brilliant band.

 

The Guillemots Emporium of Fine Things

Birdwatcher: a series of broadcasts from Fyfe Dangerfield

Guillemots biography (Apple Music)

Joel Dear lives in Cardiff. He makes music of his own under the name Shiny Tiger – you can listen to his songs on SoundCloud.

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