Review of LP Bonne Nuit, by My Fellow Sponges
Review by Trevor Conway
On first listen, this album grated with me. Its self-conscious quirkiness just got on my nerves. Rarely, however, have I come across an album that lent itself to such a major change of heart by the third listen. Unless you’re already a big fan of the more playful side of Pink Floyd, Bjork and bands such as The Moldy Peaches, Bonne Nuit might take some getting used to, like an ember that needs some fresh breath to light up fully.
Despite this, the first two tracks from My Fellow Sponges’s debut are probably two of the best. “Chill the Beans” is a nifty number embroidered with a Joanna Newsom-esque vocal. It also boasts some well-judged harmonies. The production on the following track, “This Dream Song”, gets even better. After a few listens, the surreal wackiness here is more likely to delight than infuriate. This is a pretty special song.
For the first ten seconds of “Madness”, it feels as though you’re briefly transported to a Christy Moore gig, with bodhran dominating. Then, it gets very un-Christy. Donal McConnon’s vocal, which seems almost stage-Irish here, doesn’t quite blend with what we’ve heard before on the album. There’s a nice change in tone a minute from the end in this track, but this isn’t enough to save a generally unremarkable song. This could have been more effective if placed towards the end of the album, or left off it altogether.
“Frozen Duck” is another rhythmic number. It begins promisingly, though it could have been developed in a more interesting manner. Gibberish lyrics work very well here, and McConnon’s toned-down Irishness sits more successfully with the varied sounds stitched around it (subtle drums, bass, clarinet and – I think – spoons and mandolin). “Hush the Waves”, again, could’ve been developed more, but its slow pace and perfect positioning at the mid-point of the album mark it out as a suitable shift for the album as a whole.
“Home”, which follows, appears to be the deepest song on the album, with lyrics such as “The bottle drove her mad”, “Don’t ever give it up, now” and “She does grieve/ The lost child she did conceive” delivered very effectively by Anna Mullarkey. This song, however, does highlight the apparent lack of emotion in other songs. Maybe I haven’t engaged fully with the album’s themes – and there’s nothing wrong with an album that steers clear of emotional weight – but the simple, poignant lyrics and rendering work so well here that another song or two in this general vein might have been very successful. In any case, “Home” is an affecting number, with great harmonies creating a powerful atmosphere.
Track 7, “A Foggy Ode”, is more obscure thematically (like much of the album), but simpler in sound. It’s another infectious tune with a pleasant rhythm – a mode which My Fellow Sponges seem most at home with. McConnon’s vocal suits perfectly here. It’s a pity that two relatively bland tracks follow it, but this is redeemed by the title track, which closes the album. Like “Hush the Waves” at the mid-point, this is another slow, rolling number. It mixes English lyrics with French, and serves as a well-chosen finale, releasing a quite new yet still consistent flavour.
Bonne Nuit is certainly an album which takes you on a journey. If Lewis Carroll had decided to present Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as an LP, he might’ve come up with something like this. The sheer array of instruments provides some idea of the scope and ambition here. This generally functions as a very coherent collection, despite the level of variety involved. Throughout Bonne Nuit’s twenty-odd minutes, we are presented with some wonderful vocals and harmonies, a ukulele, bodhran, harmonium, melodica, piano, drums, acoustic guitar, banjo, clarinet, bass, flute, mandolin and a glockenspiel. While a few songs are not so interesting, the album never gets absolutely boring.
For me, it contains four or five very good songs, along with a couple of other pleasing efforts and two or three that could’ve done with a bit more thought and work: all in all, a very good return for a 10-track album. The songs are fittingly short, whisking the listener away to the inventive, eccentric world of My Fellow Sponges for a few minutes shy of a half hour. It struck me that this band would probably make a very good job of a concept album or a stage musical, such is their facility with theatricality and atmosphere. In fact, Bonne Nuit, French for “good night”, may indeed be that concept album, weaving its dreamy blanket over the rapt listener.
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