CHEMIKAL UNDERGROUND 24th January 2020
Let’s just start by saying that Ivor Cutler was a pure and unalloyed genius. His perfectly individual vision was beautifully expressed in a series of recording, books and pamphlets. A mix of whimsy and profundity, often at the same time, his work is a treasure of Scotland’s twentieth century culture.
It is wonderful to see a tribute to him and a celebration of his work but, at the same time, it is impossible not to compare it to the originals, which you should, of course, seek out. That said, more is better and here it is. Bringing together a number of Scottish performers (and Robert Wyatt on the closing track), songs and poems are reimagined. Mogwai, Lau, Franz Ferdinand, Delgados and Belle & Sebastian all have members involved and it’s great to see how many love him. Phyllis King is included and is the voice that features on many Cutler recordings, bringing authenticity.
Y’Hup is an imaginary island that Ivor Cutler dreamed up and used at some points. This conceit gives the jumping off point and whether your favourites are included will depend on whether you discovered Cutler by Y’Hup or the Life In A Scottish Sitting Room series. Always a cult and never achieving mainstream recognition, Cutler’s work, nevertheless persisted unyielding over five decades and found a sizeable following; largely people who aren’t scared off by a harmonium…. and, of course, only The Fall did more Peel sessions!
It is hard for performers not to mimic Cutler’s intonation but it is managed sometimes – for example in Size Nine And A Half, which becomes an indie offering and effectively changed. Similarly the emblematic Pickle Your Knees (in cheese). A highlight is the single Women Of The World (“women of the world take over, ‘cos if you don’t the world will end”). Paradoxically this is neither cute nor funny, unlike almost everything else, yet is perfectly Ivor Cutler. Songs state the obvious in a simple way, sharing beauty or they present a surrealist picture that illumines the smile muscles. All sorts of arrangements are used – ska, sports punk, indie, dream pop, even samba. Real Man, a later piece, is a simple but wise reflection on masculinity and one of my favourites – The Path – is included. Only thirty seconds long, it reminds me there are twenty-six tracks on this album: if you don’t like one, there’ll be another along in a moment.
Split into two halves; the first is early pieces from the late fifties / early sixties, often set on Y’Hup, with its green rain, and the second half is later pieces, meditating on bugs, insects, trees and lifting shops. The whole is a refreshing reminder of this body of work and you’ll likely find yourself looking at the world in a gentler way after a listen.