Trilobite: Silver Skin
Trilobite’s self-titled first album acquired a core of serious enthusiasts, myself included. Mark Ray Lewis’ snapshot stories were married to music of spartan beauty, breaking out into actual tunes often enough to give the listener something to hold on to. The wheezing pump organ kind of defined the sound of the album, ‘ groaning with the rest of creation’ as No Depression memorably put it. The staccato phrasing of the lyrics left us to fill in the blanks ourselves – is this story personal? Imagined? Dreamt? Reported?- but there was enough to appreciate a bleak, wry humour at work, quite Zappa-like at times. Mostly what won me over, though, was the beauty in the music.
So, it’s a bit of a shock that Silver Skin opens with a wilfully difficult song, For The Empress, which announces: ‘maybe we could lose our heads/chasing a dangling melody’. Which is exactly what happens. Recognisably Trilobite in sound but shifting their footing any time a tune hoves into view, this is not easy listening in anyway. This is conceptual art in its way and we, the listeners, are expected to put some work in and try and find the thread amongst the tangle. Or it’s a case of the empress’ new clothes and it’s just cleverness for cleverness’ sake. This song is probably the hardest on the whole album to get into, but generally there is more random weirdness than the first album.
Putnam Silt Loam is to this album what Caves Of Burgundy was to the first, that is, a demonstration that Mark Ray Lewis can chuck out a murder ballad as well as anyone. This time though there’s a Coen Brothers over the topness to the whole thing: everybody dies and the song is sung in a voice that is one part gruesome glee and one part disdain for such a ridiculous tale. There’s plenty of murder and death throughout Silver Skin, sometimes verging on the comically ludicrous, but in the albums central songs,Tin Trombone and Against Moontide, most definitely quite creepy, enough to send a shudder up the spine. Either side of these songs, light relief is provided by the jaunty whimsy of Spite The Sky and On A Train. Again, the lyrics build the stories from enigmatic snapshot lines and we have to join the dots or connect with the references as well as we are able. I don’t know enough Mark Twain, for instance, to pick up much from the song with that title, other than to suspect it’s more about Mark Twain the riverboat pilot, dealing with the treacherous vagaries of the Mississippi, than Mark Twain the writer.
Again, there are plentiful moments of sparse beauty in the music and Michelle Collins is there to balance her beautiful voice against Mark Ray Lewis’ understated delivery. It’s no surprise, either, that Brett Sparks pops up playing the saw but what Silver Skin lacks, to my ear, that Trilobite had, is a flow, a thread that carries you from beginning to end. Rather this is a patchwork quilt and I’m still finding out which patches I like the best.