If anyone has earned the right to avoid the standard review complaint of an artist "not branching out" and "lacking an original sound," it's Robin Guthrie. While other artists scramble to reassemble existing sounds and styles into something more their own, Guthrie long ago helped define a sound that others have been copying—sometimes more and sometimes less directly—ever since. From his days founding the Cocteau Twins, complete with his reverb-heavy, almost bell-like guitar tone, he has consistently refined that singular sound through to the present. He's not been experimenting with the latest trends and gimmicks in the industry, and neither has he worried with trying to reinvent himself in order to stay in step with the short attention span pop culture. No, what he helped create in the first place has been working just fine, thank you.
Although his solo career is still a bit overshadowed by his prior band's work, it has nonetheless been consistently growing over the past several years. More than a side project, it has taken over a life of its own, currently resulting in three solo albums, a handful of EPs, a smattering of collaborations, and several film scores. Stylistically, this later sound takes its cue from Victorialand-era Cocteau material, on through their collaboration with ambient composer Harold Budd, until now where he finally uses his guitar techniques to fill out the whole of the sound canvas. His latest release is Carousel, another instrumental album of his trademarked layered guitar soundscapes.
"Some Sort Of Paradise" starts thing off with more of a graceful bow than a resolute bang. The album, on the whole, is just barely mid-tempo, keeping things light and pleasant. Shimmering guitars are front and center, with light counterpoint bass parts and the occasional percussion line. As an opener, "Paradise" does an excellent job for setting the mood of the album without overselling it.
Following this is "Sparkle," which is as short as it is sweet, and represents the most decidedly hooky track on the record. Genre logic prevents me from calling it a single (what does an instrumental shoegazer-ambient 'single' do, exactly?), but it serves a similar function as being the most immediately accessible track on the album. Teasingly short? Yes. Undeniable Guthrie-bliss? Indeed.
Even if "Sparkle" is one of the few cuts on the album to rise above the level of lullaby, its directness is no less carried out in some of the slower tracks to follow. "Close My Eyes And Burn" is every bit as lovely, while also straddling the line, tempo-wise, between lucid day and reverie. The rhythmically chiming guitars of "Search Among The Flowers" slowly builds with a light shuffle of drums and a very reserved crescendo of sound.
The duo of "Mission Dolores" and "Autochromes" are nice, if a bit underwhelming aside their peers. Although perhaps out of place as minor-key downers, it's more that they feel like ideas started and then kept for lack of competition. However, all is brought back in line with the gossamer drape of "The Girl With The Little Wings," where 'effortlessly light' and 'syrupy sweet' battle each other using velvet rose petals. And lastly, "Little Big Fish" serves as a purely ambient outro for a decidedly nice but amazingly short album
And that's the main complaint with Carousel—its mysteriously short length. While a sub-forty-minute album certainly isn't out of the ordinary these days, it's more that the songs themselves sometimes feel underdeveloped. Granted, part of me simply wishes the dreamy echoes lasted on into the night, but taken individually several tracks seem to just get going before being unceremoniously terminated. It's enough to stir you from your easy chair, which can't be in keeping with the style. Fortunately, this is some of Guthrie's most consistently accessible and unashamedly beautiful work. And as long as you are okay with longing for a bit more at the end of the journey, it's a rather sumptuous disappointment.