Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

The Caretaker - A Stairway To The Stars

The Caretaker
A Stairway To The Stars

Released 2001 on V/vm Test Records
Reviewed by shanshee_allures, 10/09/2006ce

V/vm are the masters of sonic goofery. They managed to turn the Warnes/Cocker 80's 'classic' 'Up where we belong' into one of the bleakest, most twisted pieces of electronica you'll ever hear, hitting the sort of doom chords Aphex Twin would sell his entire hard drive for. They also make good use of Survivor's 'Eye of the tiger', and although it's inexcusably hilarious, like the aforementioned, there's an undertone that suggests something a bit sinister is going on, the very essence of what we recognise as music ground and flattened into some sickening, uncomfortably familiar remnant of it's former self. Some have accused V/vm of simply parodying obvious targets, but that misses the point. It's the way in which they subvert and deconstruct the most innocuous, banal pieces of pop music that is the modest genius here. Please, investigate.
With 'A stairway to the stars', we have a similar conceit, but this time it's serious, with old 78's undergoing some magical manipulation. 'We cannot escape the past ' and ‘Emptiness’ have tonal qualities that evoke the eerie ambience of some long deserted ballroom, and through this it’s as if we’re invited into some nether world where the dead visit for a spell, hoping to recapture some of the worldly pleasures they once knew. In ‘Cloudy, since you went away’ this becomes more implicit. The vocal of some old time tune sluggishly wades through lethargic, barely audible horn sections, yet is somehow realised with an overwhelming sense of regret – something that is tangible throughout. Much of the album is elliptical in nature, as in ‘Each day doesn’t lead to a tomorrow’, where the production at its most fragile, but beware. It’s lilting sequence is interrupted with sudden, sporadic deep thumping sounds that, if your hi-fi set up is decent enough, seem detached from the piece itself. Whatever trickery goes on here, the sounds reverberate more than they are heard. It's almost as though your downstairs neighbour, should you have one, is banging up. Then we have ‘Home’, which on first listen is so genuinely frightening you won’t know whether to laugh or cry, with its relentlessly creepy stomping churn and twisted, strangled vocal. Other moments on the album are as equally unsettling, even when capturing glimpses of something similar to Debussy-esque dream-like oboe sounds. But there is an aching beauty here. ‘Friends past – reunited’ is a soaring choral piece, all the more majestic for remaining within the constraints of the album’s analogue, fuzzy production. The finale, ‘A stairway to the stars’ will remind you of some old simple tune or other, played out in all the majestic pathos of an old time organist playing out his very last mortal breath.
There is a prequel, ‘Selected memories of the haunted ballroom’ and a follow up, ‘We all go riding on a rainbow’, themed in the same way. However, this is the most concise, although it will take a few listens to appreciate just how it works as a piece. Once you’ve cracked it, it just might turn out to be one of the most fascinating, unfathomably wonderful creations you have ever heard.

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