It seems fitting for a band so revered as Talk Talk that their final album, along with the only solo album by singer Mark Hollis, are reissued on vinyl, that now most treasured of formats.
It’s a canny move by Ba Da Bing Records in the US to match up these works with the considered way vinyl owners take the record carefully from the sleeve, look to the past and place it delicately on a turntable.
Laughing Stock in particular is usually only spoken of in hush tones among musicians and producers. An inspiration for Radiohead and other ambitious rock acts, Laughing Stock comes after the beautiful final album the band made for EMI, Spirit of Eden.
Taking the atmosphere of Spirit of Eden with a move to Verve, a jazz imprint of Polydor, Hollis and what was left of the synth pop band he formed in the early 80s created something more akin to Miles Davis than fodder for the review pages of Smash Hits.
Involving a swathe of musicians, including around nine violinists, with incense burning in the blackened out studio lit only by lava lamps (or so the legend of this album goes), hours of often improvised music emerged. These vast tapes were then edited down and held together through Hollis’s religious themed lyrics and stunning voice.
What is created is as haunting and beautiful as Spirit of Eden albeit looser in parts, perhaps because there were no EMI execs over their shoulders. It is a fine companion piece taking Hollis’s vision of Eden further.
Opener Myrrhman begins with what sounds like half an orchestra warming up, trebled acoustic guitar and subtle jazz bass before Hollis’s distinct restrained voice comes in as the track meanders over the listener with its echoes of Davis’s Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain.
Drums make an appearance on Ascension Day, the template for Radiohead post OK Computer. Electric guitar battering through the jazz rhythms turning to softer picking and the hammond organ that made Colour of Spring, their 1986 album such a hit.
Centrepiece track After the Flood at over nine minutes is breathtaking, building up like an Ark taking to water then being flung about by a storm, or in this case a 1 min 15 sec, one note solo on a variophon, an electro-clarinet instrument invented in Germany. Hollis’ described this shrill, discordant warble from his broken version of the instrument as “one note, but you feel the note.”
Out of the last three tracks only New Grass features drums and is the best of the latter half of the album, although all the three final tracks, including Taphead and the snail’s pace Runeii bring the album to a fine, gradual and complete close.
And with the last echoes of Runeii it was all over for the band. The album was critically acclaimed but flopped and Talk Talk split shortly after.
It would be another seven years before Hollis would return, with the sparse album simply called Mark Hollis.
As soon as opening track The Colour of Spring starts you know that Hollis has continued where Laughing Stock left off. True there are less instruments and an even slower pace, but there’s the same intensity and thought.
Just piano and Hollis’s voice for The Colour Of Spring becomes a fuller sound for second track Watershed, with its acoustic guitar riff, double bass, harmonica and percussion. While disturbing in places The Gift showcases the jazz styles of Laughing Stock further and Hollis’s vocals are pure restraint before the album’s centrepiece A Life 1895-1915 begins. This track, about the short life of poet and first world war soldier Roland Leighton, has changes in mood throughout that are used to convey that troubled time for so many young men, when honour, patriotism, horror and fear combined on the battlefields of France.
As Westward Bound,The Daily Planet and our standout A New Jerusalum close the album we were struck by how much Hollis draws further inspiration from the pastoral classical music of Vaughn Williams and once again the jazz of Miles Davis. Its departure from his synth pop roots is remarkable and you wonder how this man ever recorded early hits like ‘Talk Talk’. He refused to tour with the album, publicity was limited and its completion marked the end of his two album deal with Polydor that had included Laughing Stock.
Hollis quit the music industry completely a few years after its release, reportedly to spend more time with his wife and kids. From success to artistic integrity, to silence he and Talk Talk enthralled a generation of musicians and music fans and thankfully left us with these two gems before drifting away out of the public gaze.
Laughing Stock (9.5/10)
Mark Hollis (8/10)
Both vinyl reissues are released Oct 11. Click here for more details.
By Joe Lepper