Scottish upstarts fete the Carpenters, French pop, everything else in the world
“I’m Not Ready Here,” a standout track from Erland & the Carnival’s second album, Nightingale, opens with a few lines that should strike many listeners as instantly familiar, albeit somewhat off. “Far away, and so long ago,” sings Gawain Erland Cooper, “I slipped into your dreams before the refrain.” The Scottish singer-songwriter is obviously misquoting the Carpenters’ “Superstar,” and on the chorus he repurposes the old spiritual refrain, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen / nobody knows my sorrow.” It’s a sophisticated trick that juxtaposes two seemingly disparate traditions — black spirituals and whitebread pop — and implies that old tunes become personal memory triggers for past events and relationships, totems of our past selves. For Erland & the Carnival, we are all the sum of the music we love.
Erland & the Carnival obviously loves a lot of music. The band’s name comes from a Jackson C. Franks song, and like their self-titled 2010 debut, Nightingale is crammed with references to spectral UK pastoral folk, silky French pop, the works of pop composers like Alain Goraguer and Phil Spector and Britpop acts like Blur and Pulp. In range it’s a wildly ambitious record, presenting a more vivid integration of global sounds than the tasteful approximations of DeVotchKa or the faux old-time appropriations of Mumford & Sons. It’s a heady headphones album, and songs like “So Tired in the Morning” and “This Night” thrum with life, erudite in their choice of source material and inventive in their new combinations.
To the band’s considerable credit, listeners don’t have to know the difference between Jack Nitzsche and Friedrich Nietzsche to appreciate these songs. On the other hand, they will need a lot of patience. The album is bursting with ideas, and despite Cooper’s strong, streamlined melodies, the arrangements often sag under the weight of so many ideas so unrestrainedly indulged. “Map of an Englishman” contains one of the album’s most memorable hooks, yet its heavy coda, so sudden and monolithic, sounds like it’s been tacked on, with little comment on what has come before.
Similarly, “Emmeline” opens with a short overture that’s practically quoted from the La Planete Sauvage soundtrack, then ends with a rambling, rattling dues ex machina coda. But it’s the galloping groove of the middle that matters, its reckless pace reinforcing Cooper’s meditations on lost loves. What begins as exciting — on “Emmeline” as well as on the entire album — quickly becomes exhausting as the band tries to convince us of … what exactly? The breadth of their record collection? The magnitude of their conviction? It’s hard to discern their true mission, but Nightingale is best when it traffics in the modest pleasures of a memorable melody or a pointed lyric. After all, its primary subject is music itself, and while Erland & the Carnival argue that our influences construct our identities, the album proves that they nevertheless have the potential to obscure our true selves.