The second collection from Fence records' Pictish Trail - the alter ego of Scottish one-man-band Johnny Lynch - is a frazzled and rather lovely affair. Emotionally and thematically the tone is downbeat, Lynch's sweetly sad voice telling stories of loneliness, isolation and loss, contrasting with the musically chipper, witty and surprisingly fun collection that's fizzing with ideas and bonzo folktronix. While the palette here owes something to the meandering textures of Beck, the Beta Band and Eels, that ability to be simultaneously sweet and sour, happy and sad, owes as much to the Smiths, the Cure and REM as it does Kid A-era Radiohead.
All of which will come as something as a surprise when you hit play on Secret Soundz Vol. 2's opening track, the bouncy, instrumental electro pastiche 'Secret Sounds #6', which is fun enough but lacks the punch of the rest of the album. It's like putting the first page of 50 Shades of Grey at the start of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - some perseverance is required to find the proper bits. When 'Sequels', starts the album proper it's something of a relief to be presented with Lynch's lovely singing voice and you begin to realise that the wonky bleeps and odd sounds aren't the focus here: they're the backdrop. In the foreground is a set of pleasantly sung lyrics that wrap their melancholic themes in clever and imaginative imagery, "My head swells like an accordion" sings Lynch, "you push and pull me". On album standout 'The Handstand Crowd' we have a plea to "leave the puppets in their cupboard with white sheets round their stomachs like they're standing up in bed/ are you sure they're not dead?", while 'Michael Rocket' is an Albarnish character piece.
Musically Secret Sounds is a glorious hotchpotch of screwball sounds, whizzes, bangs and bonkers instrumental breaks. 'Of Course You Exist' paints a mournful wurlitzer drone over a bouncy, clockwork pop beat, 'Wait Until' uses a low, insistent pulse that brings to mind Radiohead's 'Everything In Its Right Place' under wobbley, minor key organ chords, while 'I Will Pour Down' colours its folky fingerpicking with odd washes and squeaks. It's not until closing track 'Long In The Tooth' that Lynch feels he can strip his work down to a countryish acoustic guitar and piano, if only briefly - they're soon joined by a rainbow of tickles and beats that drive the record to an uplifting finale. Where Lynch excels is in the placements. He knows exactly how to use his box of tricks to serve the song rather than overwhelm it.
It's not a flawless record - Lynch occasionally comes across as a little too sure of himself, his tool box occasionally a little to showy for his own good, his wordplay very occasionally a little too self-satisfied. These aren't compromising factors though, Secret Sounds Vol 2 (don't worry, you don't need to hear the first one to work out what’s happening) is mostly an accomplished delight and in the Pictish Trail we may have the glimmerings of a genuinely exceptional talent from which we will hopefully see great things.
7Marc Burrows's Score