High January [LP]
Like throwing caution to the billowing winds, collaboration has a way of teasing out surprises, taking you down footpaths you’d previously never trod upon. Though Marker Starling - the ongoing project of Toronto troubadour Chris A. Cummings - had become known for his self-described “Melancholy Party Jams”, his new album, High January finds beauty in new terrain, thanks to the influence of Sean O’Hagan of the High Llamas and Stereolab, who produced the new record and helped form its idiosyncratic shapes.
Released this Spring via Tin Angel Records, High January is the first record that Cummings has recorded in the UK, and British live-band members Joe Carvell (bass), Euan Rodger (drums) and Andy Whitehead (guitar), alongside the aforementioned O’Hagan, and a special-guest appearance from Stereolab’s inimitable founder Laetitia Sadier. Rounding out the Stereolab imprint, the album was recorded at Press Play, the South London studio founded by Stereolab drummer Andy Ramsay, who also engineered the album.
Consisting of eight brand new compositions, High January can be viewed an ode to ‘pastness’, music that sings to the sound and style of what’s come before - without ever submitting to pastiche and without imitating any one style. The songs here are rich and alive, made with the conscious decision to not use any strings or orchestral instruments, carried instead only by the live band and their specific instruments. Cummings saw O’Hagan as the perfect person to work with on such a project, given his past work. “In the late nineties, between The High Llamas and Stereolab no one else was making better-sounding evocations of past styles without falling into pastiche,” Cummings says. “Mainly because of the way they mashed those styles and eras together. To me it was astonishing the way both bands used vintage instruments and recording techniques and - crucially - seemed to adapt the very ideals of a previous age, to evoke the past while creating something original.”
High January feels at once both romantic and melancholy. Take lead track 'Waiting For Grace’, a gorgeous pop song wrapped around the repeated refrain “I know I’m not the only one who’s been waiting for a state of grace.” Cummings leads the way before Laetitia Sadier takes over vocal duties, adding a playful new dimension to the song. Elsewhere ‘Starved For Glamour’ references a sense of unease with the present political situation but houses such aspersions inside a glowing 80s dance formation, Sadier’s voice again underpinning the song to beautiful effect.
Cummings cites O’Hagan’s ability to “strip away the unnecessary” as a key aspect of High January - and it’s true to say that Marker Starling has never quite sounded so at ease with itself. “Before we started recording, Sean asked me if I wanted his creative input into the song structures and I said yes,” Cummings states. "This resulted in several moments on the album that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.” Both a glowing recognition of prowess and partnership, as well as a beautiful piece of work in its own right, High January is an affectionate starting-point to another decade of music from Chris Cummings. As he himself sings on the album’s opening lines:
“Music is a form of expression; It’s how I express myself. If it comes from the heart, you can never go wrong.”
High January is released this Spring, via Tin Angel Records.