Thursday, May 30 2024

Spoken word music is a problematic genre to critique for someone obsessed with melody and form. You’re caught between the dichotomy of compartmentalisation and craft; looking for the what, where and why and the interactions betwixt them. If the underlying music supports the thematic approach of the narrative a fuller picture can be gained and the piece gains gravitas. 

There have been some incredible examples of this throughout the years; Gill Scott Heron recorded, arguably, the most influential spoken word album in musical history in, ‘Pieces of a Man’. Without this album hip-hop would not exist. Or at least, its development would have been considerably delayed. Which would also mean that Michael Franti would not have said the immortal line, “Television, the drug of the nation, breeding ignorance and feeding radiation.”

If anybody has heard Rage Against The Machine’s interpretation of Allen Ginsberg’s, ‘Hadda Be Playing On The Jukebox’ from the book ‘Howl’, they’ll understand the true power of the spoken word when underlaid with a symbiotic sonic soundscape. History is littered with literary luminaries’ linguistic leviathans lovingly ladled over mesmerising, almost transcendental, auditory platforms. Tom Waites, Talking Heads, and more recently, Clayton Jennings, Forest Blakk and -the incredible- Ren are all gifted exponents of spoken word music; weaving complicated narrative themes and concepts over beautiful and emotive music.

Written and directed by photographer Michelle Gemma – all photographs and video by Michelle Gemma, except childhood photos from the Freitas Family Albums

Ellery Twining’s, latest release, ‘S. B. Butler’, is branded as “an exploration into the soundscapes of post pop.” A heady statement, but one I’m altogether uncomfortable with. Pop music, by its very definition is popular music; music appreciated by a wide audience. It is what’s en vogue. What Sells. What’s widely appreciated. There’s a common misconception, or generalisation that pop-music is therefore simplistic, predictable repetitive patterns and structures and ‘low-artistic’ merit. It is simply what is commercially successful and widely appreciated. Therefore, to suggest that something is ‘post-pop’ suggests that there will be a time that no music will be commercially successful nor popular; that music itself will cease to be. How very dystopian. But you can see the problem here?

‘S. B. Butler’ as a poem, exploring the ideas and ideals of those growing up within the Generation X years, is a very emotive and relatable piece of literature. It’s whimsical. It’s nostalgic. It’s good. The narrative is a simple retelling in a sometimes disconnected staccato. In fact, I love the narrative, though the languid delivery is sometimes frustrating, the pay-off is worth the wait. 

The appreciation of often arbitrary and trivial things from our childhood only plateaus and becomes important as we become aware of the passing of time. When we look towards a simple, more uncomplicated time of life. In that sense, this piece reminds us to embrace those times. Celebrate them. Be reflective. But move on.

Musically the song leans heavily on the repetition of themes and is essentially driven by the bassline which combines elements of funk and blues. The drums have a loose funk feel and sit nicely within the mix; functional, unobtrusive. The same can’t be said however, about the heavily flanged and distorted guitar, which adds a deeply unsettling element; whether by accident or design, gives the indication that all isn’t as it appears in this slice of nostalgia.  

I see this as a more contemporary avant-garde piece. There are elements of mid-era Talking Heads, but I was reminded more of, Baz Luhrmann’s, ‘Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen),’ as a base point. The video is an unusual blend of footage, non-linear stills and a single-strand narrative featuring a girl leading us through various emotive and metaphorical incantations of the overall themes within said narrative. 

There are some very interesting visuals contained within, but whether they enhance the listening experience to a more visual and immersive experience, I’m unsure. Perhaps, the combination of multiple cinematic devices running in tandem was a little too much for me and it often dulled the emotive impact, but then again perhaps that was the point; to overwhelm and slightly confuse? Perhaps that’s the essence of childhood?

There are some clever ideas and metaphors, both lyrical and cinema-graphic, which add weight to the underlying concepts and as a nostalgic celebration or recollection it works well, as those memories we recall upon, are often at odds with the reality and that, ultimately, could be the genius of this; narrative recollection, combined with musical friction causing an almost dissonant, out of focus picture.

Ellery Twining has given us plenty to think about within the 2 minutes 32 seconds of ‘S. B. Butler’ and as an artist that’s the key; the discussions and conversation after.

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Ellery Twining has given us much to discuss in this avant-garde, spoken word, ode to Generation X childhood.
Thought provoking avant-garde


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About Author

Gareth Johnston

Gareth Johnston is a Lancashire based musician and producer who studied music at MMU. He is a former reviewer for 'Glitzine' and when not writing for 'The Indie Grid' can be found restoring old furniture whilst listening to obscure alt-rock. He has too many favourite bands to pick one and insists it's easier to pick a favourite child.

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