The scruffy Fyfe Dangerfield is best known in England as the multitasking singer-songwriter-instrumentalist frontman of British avant-garde pop band Guillemots. But even after two full-length albums and three EPs, his Mercury-Prize nominated group is still obscure listening in the United States.
The band is known for its orchestral approach to pop music and songs that often pair clasical instruments such as strings and horns with ambient layers of musical saws, typewriter noises and theremins. Although credit for Guillemots’ masterpieces is split between its four members, Dangerfield — who was writing choral arrangements for a local ensemble when he was just 20 years old — is the Gorilla Glue that holds it all together. His ear for aural detail saves Guillemots from being just another commercial British indie band, and his versatility as both a vocalist and musical leader is one that makes a solo album necessary and inevitable.
While touring in 2008 to promote Guillemots’ heavily electronic-influenced Red, Dangerfield went back to basics, independently penning a group of mellow tracks reminiscent of the band’s earliest material. Armed with this cache of subdued acoustic songs, Dangerfield grabbed longtime producer Adam Noble and headed into the same small studio where Guillemots put down its first EP in 2005.
Recorded in a meager five days, Fly Yellow Moon is a rollercoaster of emotions — from elated love to drunken rejection — all told through poetic verses and illuminating musical harmonies. With several tracks mixed on a 1960s-era mixing desk and the rest left in their original state from the initial recording session, the album throws back to the days before Auto-Tune and Pro Tools and showcases Dangerfield as a true music artist.
Although Dangerfield set out to record a batch of stripped-down love songs, the unpredictable musician couldn’t curb his love of musical layers and ended up with an album that seems to embody that struggle.
The first track on Fly Yellow Moon comes in right where Guillemots’ last album left off — with a synthesized beat. But after two counts-of-eight, the song explodes out of its synthetic shell — and, symbolically, Guillemots’ — to reveal the 29-year-old’s least-processed music to date.
Through an energetic piano riff — recorded as a demo on his grandmother’s antique upright and kept intact on the final track — bouncy plucked guitar harmonies and a chorus about uncontrollable sexual urges, “When You Walk Into The Room” tosses out the sometimes cryptic messages of Dangerfield’s main project and lets go in a way that Guillemots’ made-up love songs never could.
Lyrics such as I can’t help it if I’m happy / I can’t help it if I’m happy not to be sad are sung urgently and from the heart. And coupled with the infectious piano-guitar interplay, the song is physically affecting, passing Dangerfield’s teenage-like first-love giddiness onto listeners.
The only other upbeat track on the album, “She Needs Me,” is also emotive enough to make a love-Scrooge smile. With epic string arrangements, no doubt from Guillemots member Aristazabel Hawkes, swirling around a climatic chorus where Dangerfield proclaims This is where I want to be, the song could easily serve as the life-affirming soundtrack for the awkward male lead in an indie romantic comedy (think of the song playing in Punch Drunk Love when Adam Sandler is running through the airport). The song aurally and lyrically encompasses the liberating naïveté of falling in love in such an appealing way that even cynics might have a hard time resisting its feel-good urges.
But the majority of Fly Yellow Moon stays clear of Guillemots’ pop sensibilities, opting for mellow piano and acoustic guitar-based songs that force Dangerfield’s impressive vocal range to the forefront.
On “So Brand New,” for example, his voice starts off in a Nick Cave baritone, but, by the chorus, it’s swooping through the upper rifts of Mariah Carey’s soprano. The guitar is not jumpy and plucke, as in the opening song, but is instead controlled acoustic strumming, and Dangerfield’s voice provides the right amount of sonic complexity to level out the relatively smooth music.
Daring songwriting and dramatic pipes weave the album through tracks reminiscent of everything from Irish music-film Once (“Barricades”) to Belle and Sebastian’s playful intimacy (“Livewire”), but the demo tape for Dangerfield’s solo versatility doesn’t capture the full potential of the compositions.
While it is nice to experience the front man away from the complex arrangements of his band, the simple songs cry out to be filled in by obscure atmospheric noises and layers of horns and strings.
Though Fly Yellow Moon is not an album of Guillemots songs, knowing what the four-piece is capable of creates an urge to hear what the more skeletal tracks would sound like after being fleshed out by Dangerfield’s band’s international influences. It’s comparable to appreciating what Duke Ellington creates alone at his piano but at the same time knowing how much better the notes would sound if played by his orchestra at the Roseland Ballroom.
While not an earth-shattering solo debut, Fly Yellow Moon displays Guillemots’ heart at its most honest and raw. The album is Dangerfield’s musical bedroom, the place where he feels most comfortable to play his heart out, and it begs the question whether or not he will go back there again. As the final song brings in another symbolic synthetic beat, Dangerfield warns This can go in any direction / Any direction at all.