Radio Nixon: The Duckworth Lewis Method

A 2009 review of the debut Duckworth Lewis Method album from the Radio Nixon blog.

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Aaaaand now we’re back. Time for some more records actually released this year, I think.

A bit like when all those near-identical body-swap movies came out in one big glut in the late Eighties, you wait years for one of your favourite artists to release a sports-themed concept album, and then two come along in the same week. What are the chances?

(Well, I say “wait”. “Dread” is probably more accurate. You dread for years that one of your favourite artists will release a sports-themed concept album. Luckily, then, both of them are really quite good. A narrow escape.)

Firstly, there’s this. The Duckworth Lewis Method are a band comprised of Neil Hannon out of the Divine Comedy and Thomas Walsh out of Pugwash. This, by and large, is an album about cricket.

At the same time, Michael J. Sheehy’s fifth solo album With These Hands: The Rise and Fall of Francis Delaney, by and large, is an album about boxing.

The similarities aren’t as marked as you might first think. The Duckworth Lewis Method one is more in the tradition of GZA and DJ Muggs’ chess-themed opus Grandmasters – that’s right, I did indeed just compare a Divine Comedy/Pugwash collaborative side project to a Wu-Tang Clan/Cypress Hill collaborative side project, what of it? – whereas Sheehy’s is more a representation of what Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book would be if it was a pop record about boxing.

(Yes, you heard me. Most blogs struggle to shoehorn in one bizarre comparison, and you’ve just had two in one paragraph, you lucky devils.)

They do both deserve a go up here. But Sheehy’s already had one record featured here already, and a coin toss (ha!) confirmed the result that the Duckworth Lewis Method get to go first.

Lots of people have been calling this the first ever album all about cricket, a sport largely underserved with musical tributes in comparison with… well, all other sports. I’m assured by a reliable source that this is not actually the case, that a band called the Cavaliers have already trodden these paths; but irritatingly, some poxy cricket team has had the audacity to name themselves the Cavaliers, and so that record faces the same Google fate as Lodger’s magnificent A Walk in the Park (q.v.) when ill-informed souls such as myself go looking for “cavaliers cricket”. So we’ll have to make do with this being the first cricket-themed album I’ve ever heard.

I should point out that I dislike cricket. I don’t know enough about the game to actively loathe it. I dimly remember “learning” to play at school; after a few token at-bats, I designated myself a fielder, spending entire lessons out on the boundary taking no actual part in the game at all, swapping football stickers and talking about Alain Prost. On the very rare occasions the ball dared interfere with our reverie, I would pretend I had no idea what I was meant to be doing, feign total uselessness until everyone got bored and gave up, and then I sat back down and continued with whatever I was doing before I was so rudely interrupted. I’m outside, you fuckers, what more do you want from me? Take your monumentally boring colonial “game” of baseball-for-thickos, and leave me alone until it’s time to play football again.

Almost every other sport I disliked as a child, I’ve grown to love. But never cricket. I just don’t understand it. Luckily, this album is not about cricket as such; it’s a collection of disparate songs, some of which are definitely about cricket, but some of which are just excellent summery indie pop songs which simply use more cricket imagery than usual, or use some cricketing term as a peg to hang a song on. Another narrow escape.

So. The Duckworth Lewis Method, then. As mentioned, this is a collaborative side project between The Divine Comedy and Pugwash. The Divine Comedy and Pugwash are two affected, literate Irish bands, both of whom belong to a definite subset in my music collection – sort of a “literate” grouping of bands, difficult to define, but which would include the likes of Pulp, Jack, Belle and Sebastian… the test I’ve adopted is to imagine the band in question being interviewed for a music magazine (readers under 20 may not know what one of these is) and ask “Would this feature be illustrated with the band being photographed, non-ironically, in a library? Possibly holding books?” If the answer is “yes”, then they belong in here.

Both bands have made a number of albums which will be featured up here in due course. The Divine Comedy are about ten thousand times more famous than Pugwash, without ever perhaps becoming quite as famous as they apparently are in Neil Hannon’s mind.

I’m really glad Neil Hannon exists. He’s not the foppish artist-cum-aesthete he’s painted as, but he’s just about the closest 21st Century pop music is going to get, and so that’s how he’s typecast. He’s also variously been accused of tweeness, smug self-satisfaction, needless precociousness, wackiness, narcissism and preening navelgazing.

None of these allegations can be wholly denied, not convincingly (and indeed, at times Hannon has played up to each and every one of them for comic effect and media exposure); but then none of those things, in moderation, preclude a band from making genuinely great pop music. In fact, I get the feeling that a little bit of each of those might actually be necessary to make genuinely great pop music.

And Neil Hannon has made a consistent series of pretty damned fine albums; ignoring the disowned, repudiated, not-legally-obtainable debut Fanfare for the Comic Muse, the only two real misfires in the DivCom catalogue have come from reactionary knee-jerks, and even those aren’t all terrible. 2001’s Regeneration saw a concerted move away from winsome foppery, and so in came beards and jeans and T-shirts and acoustic guitars and earnest chin-stroking bollock-scratching pontification and no silly funny whimsical songs about eccentric characters and comedy lust, ending up with three or four excellent songs drowning in a virtual sea of oak-matured Real Music bullshit.

Confusingly, the other misfire, 2006’s Victory For The Comic Muse is like a wild swing the other way, being almost entirely composed of silly funny whimsical songs about eccentric characters and comedy lust; again, it has a couple of highlights, but they’re subsumed in wacky nonsense.

In between those two, as if bouncing from one end of the pendulum to the other, Hannon made the excellent Absent Friends, which remains by far my favourite Divine Comedy LP to date. This record suggests he’s now back on the right track.

Pugwash are nothing at all like The Divine Comedy. They are excellent catchy pop, who are almost exactly one third each Teenage Fanclub, the Free French and Tears for Fears. As numerous reviews have pointed out, Walsh looks not unlike WG Grace; I do know who that is, but only from having previously looked him up about 20 years ago in order to understand a joke in Blackadder Goes Forth, and I had to Google him to note the visual similarity.

(Walsh actually sounds remarkably like Roland Orzabal. In fact, the similarity of Walsh’s voice to Orzabal brought me up short a couple of times when his strong Irish diction suddenly shines through – he pronounces consonant ths as ds, which causes momentary confusion in Mason on the Boundary where the line All of Mason’s friends are there initially sounds to my closeted mainland ears like All of Mason’s friends are dead, which possibly – though it’s not definitive – gives the song a different meaning.)

It’s a lovely voice, though, quite different from Hannon’s but extremely well-suited to duets with him. And this might be the best writing partnership Hannon has had, just based on the songs that come out of it. It’s not a complete success as a totally new venture. If at times, this sounds like the work of a distinct new band – most notably on the single The Age of Revolution, of which more later – then there are also songs here that sound like The Divine Comedy with Thomas Walsh on guest vocals (Test Match Special, Meeting Mr Miandad) and songs that sound like Pugwash with Neil Hannon on guest vocals (Mason On The Boundary, Flatten The Hay). It’s difficult to see this project going anywhere else after this, but hopefully the collaboration will endure and inspire Messrs Hannon and Walsh to do fine things when they go back to their day jobs.

Anyway, there’s more going on here than just cricket and references to the principal players’ regular bands. As with Grandaddy’s Sumday, ELO references abound. Not just the obvious ones, like the Mr Blue Sky vocoder voices and electric piano which begin the album’s opening track, the brief sketch The Coin Toss, but subtle ones, too, ones that seem to have been placed there purely for real ELO nerds to spot (real ELO nerds like me). Ones like the cheery voice in the background on The Coin Toss which greets Hannon’s “good morning” in kind, exactly the same as in New World Rising from On The Third Day, for instance. Ten ELO nerd points! And the eerie similarity between the verses of Mason On The Boundary, one of two songs here which sound like Pugwash than the Divine Comedy, and those of It’s Over from Out of the Blue. It’s the sort of thing that impresses me. I’m easily impressed.

As mentioned earlier, some of the album’s connections to cricket are outright tenuous. Note the album’s absolute low point, the dismal Sweet Spot, a sort-of-glam-rock by numbers number which is neither glamorous nor rocking. The excellent would-be summer singalong single, Meeting Mr Miandad, has almost nothing to do with cricket at all except for borrowing the name of (so Google tells me) one of Pakistan’s all-time great players for its chorus to hang its rhymes upon. It’s quite clearly a silly piece of shit, but it’s just so buoyant and infectious and happy that it’s forgiven, even when it almost derails itself with the terrible line Wait there / While I get my guitar, I’m a rock ‘n’ roll star like you! delivered in an awful cod-American accent. But it’s the best Divine Comedy single for several years, despite not being a Divine Comedy single.

I don’t want to play the cricket stuff down too much, though, because quite a lot of the album is very definitely about cricket. The whole structure of the record is set up to mirror that of a cricket match, albeit extremely loosely; we begin with The Coin Toss and end with The End of the Over, with the very beginning and the very end of the album pleasingly mirroring each other with the same bars of music and the same vocodered voice.

The album’s most immediately arresting song, Jiggery Pokery, is also very definitely about cricket, as well as being the only outright comedy number; I suspect it’s going to get a lot less amusing the more times I listen to it, but I’m luckily still at the phase where I still smirk at the transposition in the third chorus when out for a buggering duck becomes what in the buggering f***?! (censored here because it’s also censored on the record, not because I’m scared to use a cussword I’m virtually sponsored by), and where I still grin at the anguished closing cry of I HATE SHANE WARNE!!

Despite what has been said – mostly by people who have never actually heard any Noël Coward records – Jiggery Pokery is not a Noël Coward pastiche, it is a music hall patter-song number more akin to Flanders and Swann. Further non-props for lack of research citing the story recounted in the song to be a fictional incident, even though the song is laden with extremely specific information which obviously indicates otherwise (the first line is It was the first test of the Ashes series, 1993, for goodness’ sake) and enough information for someone like me – who knows precisely naff all about fucking cricket – to look it up and find all I needed to know in about eight seconds. It is the story of Mike Gatting being sensationally bowled out by a gravity-defying ball bowled by then-unknown Shane Warne. The reviewers and interviewers asking if Hannon really does hate Shane Warne are presumably the same nincompoops who think the Kelly cartoons in The Onion are real.

Anyway. It’s a fine, funny squib, but in playing to the crowd for laughs it runs the risk of misleading that this might be a comedy cricket album, some sort of ghastly novelty record; in fact, although there is another “funny” Hannon song towards the end of the batting order in Test Match Special, this album also boasts three slow, contemplative numbers and an instrumental (I was always annoyed when a band noted for lyrical wit and vocal prowess did instrumentals, but Rain Stops Play is rather pretty and serves its narrative purpose well.)

(The inclusion of those daffy songs also has the side effect of actually making this LP quite a lot sillier than any of The Divine Comedy’s albums proper, which – despite the apparently-carefully cultivated image – are usually mostly sensible and moving affairs, daffiness often being reserved for a couple of singles and B-sides. But I digress.)

The excellent lead-off single The Age of Revolution, lyrics by Walsh and music by Hannon, based around a loop of a riveting Twenties jazz sample, celebrates the globalisation of the game, the battering down of barriers and the opening of the sport to everyone.

The sample which underpins the whole thing is quite fantastic. I like the sound of old 78s, and have a few records from the 20s which are worth entries of their own at some point. I quite like the way the primitive acoustic recording technology flattens everything out, gives everything much the same unique sound, a tinny, muffled, sped-up, hard-to-distinguish fuzz; a kind of period effect, where hearing music reproduced on a 78 from eighty years ago becomes the sound of the Twenties and Thirties far more than a flawless modern recording of the same music could ever be, and used in films and TV to signify “Twenties!” as though that was what live music actually sounded like in 1929. Quite useless for listening to the actual orchestras and big bands that were actually being recorded, it nonetheless instead gives all instruments the same immediately-identifiable sound, almost an instrument in its own right, and an immediately compelling one. White Town noticed it, with remarkable results, and the Duckworth Lewis Method obviously took note – or notes – because it works to similar effect here.

The lyrics aren’t quite up to the job they set themselves, but it’s a cracking song and a fine statement of intent.

I’m going to talk about Robert Browning and The Ring and the Book a lot more in the next entry – yeah, that’s right, be excited – but there is a nice touch here with The Age of Revolution being immediately followed by Gentlemen and Players, a hymn to pretty much the exact things The Age of Revolution was revolting against; the white, starched, upper-class 19th Century English game. Two sides of the same coin; a hint that while the progress celebrated in The Age of Revolution was a worthy cause, something glorious was lost in the transition.

This song is glorious, anyway. Where The Age of Revolution was brash, modern, peppy, this is considered, slow, pastoral. The music is gorgeous; the instrumental backing is pure Divine Comedy, but with the added ingredient of some lovely vocal harmonising (ELO again, but taking cues from Time this, er, time, rather than anything from their 70s heyday. I am such a nerd).

The song also achieves the commendable feat of somehow getting a lovely pop hook out of a flat history lesson, as Hannon informs us a bored young William Ward MP bought Lord’s from Thomas Lord in 1825; it’s a remarkable line which begins as a staccato spoken-word burst and ends in lovely Beach Boys pop harmony, with no join visible, in one of the best deliveries of Hannon’s whole career. Gentlemen and Players also namechecks Fuller Pilch (thanks again, Google) and Ripping Yarns; it’s one of the best evocations of time and place on an album that’s chock full of them.

None of the rest of it is quite as good, but there are two good acoustic-led Pugwash songs in the aforementioned Mason on the Boundary (I like the spoken-word dream interlude – “…The scent of tweed and gingham fill his colonial senses. It looks like rain.”) and Flatten The Hay, which is a lengthy series of autobiographical recollections which just add up to a yearning revocation of childhood. Very pretty though. There’s also The Nightwatchman – once more, Google to the rescue to tell me exactly what this has to do with cricket – which shares similarities with, and bears comparison to, downtempo DivCom numbers like Timewatching and The Frog Princess.

This album’s most remarkable success for me, though, is that after listening to it for a couple of weeks, it may actually have briefly made me interested in cricket, if only to the extent of actually bothering to get around to playing the remaindered copy of the Cricket 2004 computer game I got for a pound two years ago and revelling in playing the gentleman’s game in the simulated late summer sunshine. So, er, bravo.

So, that’s 50% of the world’s cricket-pop. Next up, 50% of the world’s boxing-pop.

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