The Spin Doctor – Bill Ryder-Jones, “If…”

Bill Ryder-Jones, “If…” (Double Six Records)

4.0 out of 5

I’ve never read Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler but after listening to Bill Ryder-Jones’ debut LP If…, I’m certainly inclined to. Inspired by  the Italian avant-garde author’s 1979 novel, If… is Jones’ vision of what the text might sound like accompanied by music. Recorded with the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra at a friary in England, If… is a remarkably accessible blend of stark instrumental orchestration with just enough vocals to tie it all together; quite a departure from the 60’s psych-rock of the Liverpudlian’s work with his former band, The Coral.

Conjuring imagery of a grandiose European adventure, according to Jones, each composition encapsulates a chapter of Calvino’s text: The steamy small-town railway station in northern Italy depicted in the instrumental opener “If…”, onward to the opulent European city envisioned in “The Reader (Malbork)”, to a hospital along the coast in “Leaning (The Star of Sweden)”, and finally, reaching the album’s conclusion with “Some Absolute End (The End)”. What’s so rewarding about If… is how well the album plays regardless of your familiarity (or lack thereof) with the source material. While Jones’ inspiration is decidedly European, If… is malleable enough to work in whatever setting you might find yourself. Throw on a pair of headphones, head out your front door, and you’ll quickly realize that Jones’ beautiful string and piano arrangements are perfect fodder for walking the streets of any neighbourhood.

While there’s nothing very pop about If… it feels as much a pop record as a classical record. This is due in large part to Jones’ subdued vocal work on tracks such as “Le Grand Desordre”, and “Give Me A Name” where string arrangements built around an acoustic guitar or piano wouldn’t feel out of place on an Elliott Smith or Nick Drake record. “Enlace”, while being one of the more compelling moments on the record, is also the only moment that feels out of place. Some last bastion of Jones’ pysch-rock origins, the track somewhat awkwardly transitions halfway through from a simple piano measure and accompanying percussion to a breakout jam, complete with fuzzed-out electric guitar. “I don’t know what I was thinking here… it’s a bit silly really” said Jones describing “Enlace” in a recent interview. And while he’s absolutely right, it makes the guitars and crashing percussion no less enjoyable.

Although Jones has received no shortage of accolades in the UK, critics in North America and Asia have been slow to respond, which is a shame. If… is a wonderfully understated record, and truly unique both in its appropriation of a novel as soundtrack material, and as a genre bending blend of orchestral and vocal compositions. Much the way Colin Stetson made critics question the traditional parameters of a jazz record with last year’s excellent New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges, Jones is challenging the conventions of what a classical soundtrack is and should be.

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