July 14, 2023

The most directly conceptual full album that the Club have produced … a rather obtuse story arising from the purportedly true, if historically buried and obfuscated, characters of Mr October and Ludmilla, presumed doomed lovers who were based around London’s theatre-going scene of the late Victorian era…

The Gardening Club, as those who have investigated their output will know, are less a band and more a somewhat fluid ‘project’, revolving around the nucleus of Martin Springett – Toronto-based singer, guitarist and songwriter, who first coined the Gardening Club name some four decades ago with a self-titled album released when he still resided in England. Fast forward to today, and these Gardening Enthusiasts put the most ardent ardent allotment-holder to shame as they make up for the decades-long hiatus in the project by releasing music on a remarkably regular basis. This particular entry in the series (credited, as is by now customary, as ‘A Gardening Club Project’) is musically largely a collaboration between Martin and one of his regular cohorts Kevin Laliberte (the latter responsible for production, keyboards and orchestration, as well as drum programming). By contrast and comparison to recent Gardening Club outings, this is in some ways more of the familiar same, but in others rather different.

The first major difference here is that the lyrics, normally largely the work of Springett himself, are all penned by Steve Bennett. In a related way, this is also the most directly conceptual full album that the Club have produced, with Bennett’s lyrics all telling a rather obtuse story arising from the purportedly true, if historically buried and obfuscated, characters of Mr October and Ludmilla, presumed doomed lovers who were based around London’s theatre-going scene of the late Victorian era, and according to difficult-to-locate and sketchy newspaper reports, the subject of mysterious and unsolved disappearances. It’s a fascinating concept, and brilliantly condensed into the obliquely atmospheric ‘libretto’ (as it is appropriately referred to) contained herein. This is all part of the superbly designed booklet, illustrated as usual by Martin, which takes the form of a spoof theatrical programme for The Moon Of Madness, reportedly the mysterious Mr October’s final appearance. (Just as an aside on the artwork incidentally, and to exorcise something which has nagged at me every time I look at the front cover – that’s Mr October and NOT Commander Riker from the Starship Enterprise…!)

Musically, this isn’t a million miles away from recent Gardening Club offerings, though it is probably safe to say that it is the closest to a true ‘full-fat’ prog rock work to have emerged under the banner for some time, if not ever. This impression is of course aided by the irresistible pull of the conceptual nature, but the composition does lend itself to some very pleasingly extended passages wherein the songs are allowed to breathe and flex their creative muscles. There are several songs which could be picked out as highlights – the instrumental ‘overture’ of sorts London Streets, and key pieces such as Mr October, Rain On The Rooftops and Ludmilla, but in truth this is an album which is intended to be listened to as one cohesive whole. It’s also a nice concise length for this purpose – a vinyl-friendly 40 minutes or so – and benefits from the lack of any attached ‘bloat’ to bulk out the running time unnecessarily. Martin Springett’s vocals are always something of a divisive nature, favouring as he does a sort of diffident, detached sort of delivery, which is at its strongest on tracks possessed of a slightly other-worldly or mysterious feeling, and less so if drama and forcefulness is called for. Fortunately, the former quality is very much the order of the day here, and things fit like the proverbial (white, theatrical) glove.

If you’ve enjoyed recent Gardening Club projects such as The Boy On A Bike, The Blue Door or Bridge Of Spirits then there’s no reason that you won’t enjoy this just as much, as the musical touchstones are there in comforting amounts. If, however, you have yet to dive in to the flower beds, and are partial to a little fog-bound Victoriana with your conceptual mixture, this might be your best entry point. Who knows, you may even be inspired to investigate further and uncover more shrouded truths about Mr October and the rest of the cast. Take your seats, Ladies and Gentlemen – curtain up in five minutes!