Gentle Stranger took just one week to crystallise a set of ideas that formed the emotional core of their debut album Love And Unlearn. The band, who have a shifting cast of associated members, were then comprised of Tom Hardwick-Allan, Alex McKenzie, Josh Barfoot and Evangeline Ling (who has since left to focus on Audiobooks). “It was the first time that we tried to record a stand alone project,” says multi-instrumentalist Hardwick-Allan of the seven days they spent in one small room two and a half years ago. “it’s a snapshot of the band at that particular time, rather than representative of us as a whole.”
Recorded “almost all live”, there are no samples and precious few overdubs. The band are all accomplished multi-instrumentalists, and recall heading to Margate’s PRAH studios by train, carrying everything from a flute, trombone, and saxophone to a dual clarinet and a smoke alarm. They even brought a toy piano, despite only needing four notes, such was their dedication to getting things right in terms of both tone and texture.
“We wanted an album that existed within the logic of a world that it made for itself, like a school band pretending they’re superstars,” explains Hardwick-Allan. “That’s part of the texture of the album, this straining towards something that’s beyond our capabilities.” Certainly, it doesn’t take long before Love And Unlearn’s sprawling ambition becomes blindingly apparent. Opener ‘Idle Messenger’ begins with soft, mournful brass before shifting to lo-fi guitar, jazz drums, shrieks, and elements of swing. It’s a lot to take in.
These disparate elements jostling for position are what makes all nineteen tracks so vibrant and interesting. The dirty bassline that powers ‘Love And Unbass’, the punkish ‘Smoke Alarms’, or the gentle idle pop of ‘Two To Carry’; none of it sounds forced or contrived. Most impressive is how the band switch from the delicate and fragile –‘New Insect Lite’ or the title track – to the unsettling cacophony of ‘Hurry Horse’ and ‘Like A Deer’, while still sounding unmistakeably like the same band.
The album is heavily inspired by Phillip K. Dick’s The Preserving Machine, a cautionary tale about a scientist’s desire to preserve music by transforming it into living forms. But the band also immersed themselves in Mark Fischer’s writings, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Author of the Acacia Seeds, William Blake’s Songs Of Innocence And Experience, and the work of Scottish poet Ivor Cutler.
There’s a bleakness to the imagery on Love And Unlearn, a naïvety too, but their writing cuts deep at times... “Like a deer without eyelids / When it comes to love” they sing on ‘Like A Deer’; “Caught myself in the curve of a dream / With a dead kestrel at my feet” goes ‘Kestrel’. “Teething but otherwise idle”, a line that crops up several times, is key to understanding the record, both in terms of this “becoming” and its focus on youth. “It is quite teenage in that respect,” says Hardwick-Allan. “Like trying to process of the world in a real way, even though it’s quite overblown and sort of camp.”
The animals in The Preserving Machine eventually evolve, growing claws and stingers, feasting on themselves. Feeding them back into the machine, the resulting music is “distorted, diabolical, without sense or meaning.” The parable is clear; youth and beauty are soon corrupted by the harsh truths of the adult world. But with Love And Unlearn, Gentle Stranger have preserved that moment when youthful exuberance triumphed, possibility stretching out towards the horizon. It grasps at magic and strives for greatness; age should be no hindrance to such noble goals.
1. Idle Messenger
2. Love And Unbass
3. Dunce Disco Anthem
4. Plastic Skeleton
5. New Insect Lite
6. Call Me Back Later
7. Insects Logic
8. Hurry Horse
9. Like A Deer
10. Two To Carry
11. Basic Stretches
12. Rook In The Rafters
13. Love And Unbrass
14. Trope After Trope
16. Smoke Alarms
18. Love And Ulearn
19. Obvious As Snow
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