Anyone following the activities of The Gardening Club (a loose assembly based around Toronto-based UK ex-pat Martin Springett) will be aware of a quite remarkable spike in activities just at the moment. Indeed, there can be few cases of a greater swing from one extreme to the other, with over three decades separating the first couple of Gardening Club albums, and now seemingly one arriving on your doorstep eager to be taken for a spin every few months. ‘From Potting Shed to Cottage Industry’ should perhaps be the tagline.
This latest release follows hot on the heels of the (very) recent The Time Trilogy / The Owl releases, but while those two works were EPs, or standalone longform pieces if you will, which went together to form an album-length whole, The Blue Door is a single conceptually related set of songs which is very much an album in its entirety. And it is a very strong set – while I personally still rate The Owl as the best single piece released by the collective (it is more accurately credited as ‘A Gardening Club Project’ on these most recent releases), The Blue Door may well be the strongest album-length set that has emerged from the Potting Shed thus far.
For those aware of the Project’s regular output, there are not many stylistic surprises here. Martin concentrates very much on the song first, as opposed to any great instrumentally extended flights of fancy, being more in the vein of a Steely Dan or 10cc finely-crafted sound than any great bombastic endeavours. Taste, restraint and painting a delicate ‘pen-picture’ in words and music is very much the order of the day, and in this case – as if to emphasise the unified whole of the album – we even open with an ‘Overture’, titled My Muse And I, or The Blue Door Overture. And a very strong opening it is too, introducing us to the general feeling and ‘vibe’ (if we are allowed to still use that grand old word these days!) of the whole piece. This time out, Martin handles the acoustic and electric guitar parts himself, with his oft-present musical partner Norm MacPherson not involved in this endeavour, and perhaps as a result of that there is a slightly more acoustic-dominated feel to the work as a whole, although this allows the exceptions to this rule to be thrown into sharp relief: Winter Snow, for example, has a coda dripping with Steve Hackett / four-piece Genesis feeling, and is a standout, along with the preceding The Path Not Taken, which is one of the rockier moments on the record, with some more excellent electric playing.
Lyrically, the album is predominantly couched in allusion and suggestion, with much of what is written about being up to the listener’s own interpretation. What the Blue Door represents, and where it leads, would probably get ten different answers from ten different people, all of which would, in their own way, be equally valid. What is overwhelmingly present, however, is an overriding feeling of nostalgia, with a melancholic sense of looking back at things done and opportunities both grasped and not taken. It’s this feeling, and the skilful avoidance of overt storytelling, which makes the album hang together so well as a conceptual and satisfying whole, with the entire thing as a single listen more satisfying and effective than cherry-picking individual tracks.
Having just said that, however, I am going to go against my own advice and cherry-pick a couple of personal standouts, in addition to those mentioned above – and in this case I am plumping for the two longest tracks on the album. The Turning Of The Glass is the only track with words not from the Springett pen, as Terry Findlay contributes an outstanding lyric relating to the passing of time marked out by significant and joyous events, illustrated by the metaphor of an hourglass being turned. It’s a rare example here of a fairly linear lyric, but it works brilliantly with the entirely symbiotic musical accompaniment to create an affecting highlight. The other standout would have to be the instrumental closer, Long Tailed Flight, with the instrumental heavy lifting this time being gloriously provided by Sari Alesh’s brilliant violin work, soaring and twisting to conjure up the titular flight in such a way as to work as a perfectly realised tome poem. It’s a perfect and joyously uplifting way to close the album.
Apart from Alesh’s violin guest appearances, the collaborators in the Shed on this occasion are Drew Birston contributing bass on several tracks, but mostly Kevin Laliberte, responsible for the production, arrangements, keyboards and drum programming. In that sense this is almost a Gardening Club Duo in terms of the creative axis. Martin handles all of the vocals, and his diffident, almost detached method of delivery is a perfect conduit to put across the nostalgic element of past times. The only negative I would feel compelled to mention would be a tendency to slightly over-use the trick of double-tracked vocals harmonising with themselves. Used sparingly, this technique bolsters the vaguely other-worldly quality hanging over the music, but on one or two occasions it is used a little too liberally, and becomes something of a blunt instrument. It’s a clever production technique, but in this case less is, occasionally more.
As with all Gardening Club releases, the music is bolstered by equally important visuals, with Martin being as much of an acclaimed artist as a musician, and always wrapping his releases in an iconic and instantly identifiable artistic style. This is no exception, with the lyrics handily included, and each song being given its own individual illustrative contribution. This is something which I am particularly keen on, as the danger in these modern, digital times is for the visual component of album releases to be watered down to the point of virtual irrelevance, and anything encouraging that vital synchronicity of the music and the visuals can only be applauded.
Foe the Gardening Club to be producing this volume of impressive work, one can only assume that the Potting Shed must be stocked with particularly nutritious grow-bags. Either that or the soil over in Toronto is of a notably loamy make-up! I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the seeds of the next excursion are already beginning to germinate. Put on your old gardening trousers and get your hands dirty, it’s a good feeling!