Peter Hammill

Out of Water

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This release from English maverick singer/songwriter Peter Hammill exhibits something of a holding pattern after release of the excellent In a Foreign Town, which itself was a recovery from the abysmal ...And Close As This. It isn't that there's anything vastly wrong with the album; it just gives off a feeling of having been to all these places before. There's no doubting one thing, though, Hammill is taking to MIDI by leaps and bounds, and improving his command of the technology with each successive release. Where In a Foreign Town had some amazingly good sampled horn work, Out of Water does it with strings and orchestral arrangements -- so sufficiently that you can forgive the few lapses into the stodgy electric piano-type sounds that happen here and there, and the odd choice of the wrong type of reverb or gating on a couple of tracks. Plus, there's Hammill associate Stuart "Hooligan" Gordon, a Scottish violinist who looks like Benny Hill and plays like Jascha Heifetz (certainly a more-than-adequate replacement for violinist Graham Smith, whose "Cat's Eye" performance Gordon easily equals in concert), and longtime Hammill sidemen Nic Potter (bass), John "Fury" Ellis (guitar), and David Jackson (saxes), all of whom contribute to various tracks. Mostly, though, it's Hammill's show, and he carries it off very well indeed, even if longtime Hammill fans miss the drum work of Guy Evans (last seen working with Hammill on the improvisational Spur of the Moment and Union Chapel). It's the songs, more than anything, that bring about the sense of déjà vu; themes, perhaps, that Hammill has visited a few times too many over his career. He echoes relationships, the traumas of personality, political awareness, a cosmic angst; all together, the album seems more of a summing-up before a major next step rather than anything truly fresh. At times, as with the end of "Our Oyster," he manages to scuttle a practiced commentary on the realities of geopolitics by making a forced and self-conscious reference to the Tiananmen Square massacre. This contrasts awkwardly with the wonderful "Not the Man," a melodramatic, pulsing, almost exuberant song about growing and changing in a relationship: it's challenging, dynamic, questioning, wanting to know what's what at this moment in time; right now. The entire album yo-yos like this, never getting bad enough to ditch, then swinging out to a high point that makes you hang in there until the whole mélange winds up, happily, in a good place. The last track, "A Way Out," takes every cliché Hammill can find and makes one hell of a brilliant, shifting, orchestral ballad out of it all; the arrangement of words bringing smile after smile while making some very sharp points. Other tracks, though, are a little aimless: "No Moon in the Water" has good sax work from David Jackson, but wanders about in the beginning with no apparent point. If this wasn't enough, Hammill's vocal on the song falls prey to all his worst traits -- including his tendency to overdo things at all the wrong moments -- a problem that also arises, to less-damaging effect, on "Evidently Goldfish" (another song about the tendency of people to stick their heads in the sand), and "On the Surface" (where the overwrought vocals get in the way of a perfectly good arrangement). Stuart Gordon's outstanding violin work graces the lengthy "Something About Isabel's Dance," a song that actually dives into the process of telling a story. It's a languid piece, fairly breathing ennui, and quite gorgeous. Unfortunately, it never seems to go anywhere, and by the end of it listeners are left wondering what the point was in the first place. As an indicator, it's intriguing, and gives hints of other directions to come. On the other hand, Hammill's periodic tendency to over-complicate an arrangement and song design comes to the fore with "Green Fingers," which goes awry and never recovers. As usual, then, Hammill is somewhat challenging and, as always, frustrating, as he continues to evade pigeonholing while not quite getting a focus on what direction he's off in. On the other hand, this gentle and seemingly befuddled (going by his appearance in concert) singer/songwriter is doing far more with his songs than most of his ilk can ever manage to contemplate.

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