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Music Review: The Chemistry Set – Alchemy #101

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The Chemistry Set are back. This is the London Psychedelic-pop duo who, way back when, attracted the attention of the late great John Peel, among many others. It is fair to say, however, that despite this heavyweight support, the duo of Paul Lake and Dave McLean remain one of those ‘so near and yet so far’ bands who deserve a far wider recognition.

Their intended debut album from 1989, the brilliantly entitled, Sounds Like Painting sadly remained unreleased and gathering dust for years. Some of their 12” single releases fetch impressive sums so clearly people are still very much up for the band. The news of this release is pure nectar to the faithful.

The word finally started picking up momentum and The Chemistry Set found that Sounds Like Painting was busily attracting renewed interest and was downloaded 8,000 times in a three month period.

This confirmed what many already knew. The Chemistry Set still had a cult like following. Demands for new material flooded in and the result is here, Alchemy #101, a mini album, released last month on Skittlebrau Records.

The band's name brings back some disturbing memories of nearly burning my parents house down playing with, you’ve guessed it, a Chemistry Set. Historically this has to be the dumbest thing ever to buy a child. Anyone whose parents were reckless enough to buy one will know that a little of the blue powder, a splash of yellow stuff, and a pink crystal or two heats up the test tube alarmingly quickly before catching fire altogether. This band do just that to music.

They recorded this on an island in the middle of the River Thames in the shadow of Henry VIII’s digs, mixed it in Barcelona, and then added a further splash of Catalan atmosphere by inviting the delightfully named Suzette de la grace Faberge to add French vocals. Not contet with that, it’s been released on a Scottish label. The result is a chemistry set to music, of course.

It’s a mini album of six pieces of magical psychedelic sparkly dust. It is one that oozes class, and drips honeyed quality. When asked why it didn’t blossom into a fully grown album the duo replied that they wanted to ‘maintain high quality control and ensure that each song is fantastic’.

Well, the good news is that they have achieved precisely that. Opening with “She’s Taking Me Down”, The Chemistry Set, launch your unsuspecting ears into a musical trip through the colourful Rickenbacker land of Roger McGuinn of The Byrds. Suddenly, I am that stupid kid that was destined to play with crystals again.

It would be wrong to merely say that this transports you back to the sixties because it is also fresh, vibrant, and positively alive. Having said that, there is no doubt that sixties bands like The Byrds, The Beatles, and The Hollies knew how to write a catchy melody or two. Well somewhere along the line Paul Lake and Dave McLean have been busy soaking them up.

In fact, I have an image of them eating piles of vinyl literally ingesting the best of the best before rowing out to their island on the Thames to lay down music of this quality.

“Seeing Upside Down” has those jangly, chiming guitars to the fore again enriching another contagious hook. This is a musical rash, in the nicest possible way, suddenly you are literally covered in it. “Look To The Sky” captures the unique quirky Englishness of the late sixties psychedelia of the London scene. Syd Barrett lives on, thank God.

“If Rome Was Meant To Fall” opens as if McGuinn himself has been invited along. It’s another ultra cool, sparkly, chiming, and downright wonderful track.

“Silver Birch” arrives shrouded within a misty atmospheric veil. It is taken from a long lost Del Shannon album from 1968, The Further Adventures Of Charles Westover, (Shannon’s real name, I’m told). For this they add flutes, mellotrons, huge choral backings, and more gorgeous acoustic guitar. It’s simply stunning and has me raiding the dusty vinyl for Mr. Westover’s original.

The last track, “Regarde Le Ciel” (translated by my CSE French as, I think, Look At Heaven) sees the entrance of the outrageously sexy sounding Ms Faberge. I agree totally with the publicity when it says she sounds somewhere in between Francoise Hardy and Jane Birkin. Which, of course, wouldn't be a bad place to be.

Okay, the French lyrics would have given me a clue but I am sure I would have written that myself had I not read it first. It  closes the album with a class that teases your senses leaving them crying out for more.

Alchemy #101 now lights up my hungry little iPod. I am off to lie on the grass and dream of times when music like this signaled a period in time that will live forever. So come on guys, on the strength of this all concerns regarding quality control have been put to bed once and for all.

The next time I’m in London lost in the maze of Hampton Court Palace, I’ll look out across the water for an island in the river. Then, I'll listen for that chiming Rickenbacker and the harmonic sounds of The Chemistry Set working up another gem.

Tune in, turn up, and log on. The Chemistry Set can be found on their MySpace page.

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About Jeff Perkins