Trembling Blue Stars
For ten years now, Bobby Wratten, front man of the London-based Trembling Blue Stars, has been composing startlingly intimate, deeply emotional love songs that deal with infatuation and obsession, longing and lust, rapture and regret. In spirit, his work recalls the youthful candor of seventies singer-songwriters like Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell as well as the melancholic romanticism of Nick Drake. In sound, however, his material is far more up to the minute, artfully incorporating elements of electronic dance music and computer-generated ambient touches.
The Seven Autumn Flowers, produced in collaboration with Saint Etienne engineer Ian Catt, is the sixth album from Trembling Blue Stars and its first disc of all-new material in three years. (TBS's last effort, A Certain Evening Light, was a compilation of singles, B-sides and rarities.) Bar/None’s North American edition contains four bonus tracks previously available as import-only B-sides. The album opens with backing vocalist Beth Arzy, an emigre from Southern California and lead singer of Aberdeen, taking the lead on "Helen Reddy," which describes the aural and emotional pull of an AM radio song that has traveled countless miles over the airwaves of some distant station. That's a familiar subject for Trembling Blue Stars: the band's 1996 debut single, the critically acclaimed "Abba on the Jukebox," commemorates the moment when a song becomes indelibly linked with a lover. The more recent "Doo Wop Music," released in the U.K. as a blue vinyl 7", explored the erotic possibilities of dancing close and slow to an old-fashioned rhythm (which TBS recreated via drum machines and scratchy samples).
TBS songs are often heartbreakingly specific. On The Seven Autumn Flowers, a girl stands poised before a jukebox, intently contemplating the ten plays she'll get for a dollar. A man at an airport terminal window turns his back on a departing plane, unable to watch his lover leave and, perhaps, a relationship end. A couple takes a respite from their troubles and the din of the city by dozing off side by side in the pastoral oasis of London's Kensington Gardens. While there is a brooding tone to the album, the overall mood is brighter and more hopeful than on prior discs - -a hint of the dawn that all the late-night darkness had promised at its end. The arrangements are simple but almost cinematically stirring, with bedroom instrumentation yielding big-screen effects.
Trembling Blue Stars began in the winter of '95 as a solo project from Wratten in the aftermath of his short-lived band Northern Picture Library breaking up. Until then, he'd been better known as the lead singer and songwriter of English cult faves the Field Mice, flagship group of the much-loved and very idiosyncratic indie label Sarah Records. “Missing the Moon,” which garnered the Field Mice Single of the Week honors from the NME and remains the group’s signature song, combined programmed dance beats a la New Order with wistful Wratten lyrics. Though long gone, the Field Mice are hardly forgotten: Saint Etienne paid homage to the band by remaking Wratten’s “Kiss and Make Up” as seductive dance pop and rare Field Mice vinyl still commands serious prices on the internet.
Wratten borrowed his new band's name from a line in The Story of O, Pauline Reage's classic novel of S&M erotica and took the title for TBS's debut album, Her Handwriting, from a Go-Betweens lyric. (He’s kept up that tradition of literary appropriation. The title of the 1998 TBS disc, Lips That Taste Like Tears, came from Dorothy Parker and The Seven Autumn Flowers was inspired by a book of Japanese short stories.) What started out as a do-it-yourself, one-off effort received so much attention from U.K. critics and indie rock fans that Wratten was persuaded to assemble a band to perform TBS songs live. Early shows, which included an acoustic session for BBC Radio 1, were infrequent enough to be regarded as rare and special occasions; an out-of-the-way gig in Brighton during summer '97 attracted fans who flew in from the U.S., France and Switzerland.
Over the course of five subsequent albums – including Broken By Whispers (2000) and Alive To Every Smile (2001), along with the aforementioned ones -- Trembling Blue Stars have indeed become a "real" entity, and the band's recorded work has finally been made available worldwide. The current lineup features vocalist-guitarist Wratten, backing vocalist Arzy, bassist Keris Howard (formerly of Sarah Records band Brighter) and drummer Jonathan Ackerman. The Seven Autumn Flowers can provide easy transport back to that world the quietly passionate Wratten conjures up so evocatively in his songs, where hearts may get wounded but hope springs eternal. We’ve all been there before.
- Michael Hill