28th July 1990, Melody Maker
||FOR THE PAST YEAR, CRANES HAVE BEEN BUILDING A REPUTATION AS ONE OF THE MOST CAPTIVATING BANDS IN BRITAIN. 'INESCAPABLE', THEIR DEBUT EP ON DEDICATED, SEEMS CERTAIN TO FULFIL THEIR PROMISE. DAVID STUBBS MEETS THE QUARTET FROM PORTSMOUTH WHOSE RESHAPING OF ROCK LOOKS POISED TO CAST A SHADOW OF AWE OVER THIS YEAR'S DANCE OBSESSION.
Cranes might be the sound of the little girl trapped in the interference-ridden TV set in "Poltergeist". Or the sound of the little girl scolded and locked in the cupboard during her eighth birthday party - and never let out. "I was thinking the other day that I'm basically the same person I was when I was four years old," says singer Alison. "My basic character was developed by then and although things have happened to me since, that have shaped me, they haven't altered me fundamentally."
Cranes are the starkest possible contrast to the current scene, the unbaggiest group alive. The emaciated presence cuts through the boyish, boorish jollification of the Joe Bloggs, one-size-fits-all, boys own, get-your-wedge-here surly hedonism of the neo-Manchester groups like a streak of anorexia nervosa. Listening to Cranes is like sitting, bolt upright, cold and shivering and realising that the all-nightmare was just a bad dream. Cranes are refreshingly traumatic, a sharp relief from the laboured boisterousness of the hippy revival. A thin, frozen girl suddenly appears among the fat, sweaty boys. As Chris Roberts once put it, "Nemesis comes to Manchester. With a knife."
Cranes are Matt Cope (guitars) Mark Francombe (guitars) and the curious brother-sister songwriting partnership of Jim Shaw (drums!) and sister Alison (vocals). The ghosts of The Carpenters! Theirs was an unusual upbringing - they lived separately with respective divorced parents, they didn't really get together again until their mid-teens. Whereupon they began recording and writing together, subsisting on a spartan diet of potatoes and Bisto gravy so as to repay a load for studio facilities. Over the last year or so, their labours have bourne a strange fruit, with their debut LP, "Self-Non-Self", a brilliant unrecorded Peel session, an increasingly confident series of live dates, and an upcoming single, the almost anthemic, claustrophobic wail of "Inescapable".
The Sound of Cranes is a shadowy distillation of the best avant-garde goth, from The Birthday Party to Swans, all musical debts repaid with interest. They sound like a band labouring under a terrible apprehension. Jim is the drummer, but creates the open-ended musical settings in which Mark and Matt's guitars groan and lurk like palpable but indistinct demons, while Alison's voice is the most distinct and peculiar contribution - infantile, high-pitched as if trapped in the attic, terrified, disturbed and disturbing.
Mark : "When I first heard Alison sing, I didn't think it could possibly be her own voice. I thought it had been treated, contrived." Truely, she makes Diamanda Galas sound as hearty as Alison Moyet. Cranes go for effects, imitations not a single word can be made out from Alison's urgent communiques. Titles are almost arbitrary. "Beach Mover" (from "Self-Non-Self") is dank and chained up, makes a dungeon of the subconscious; "Joy Lies Within" from the same EP, is macabre and whimsical, like finding a ghost threading together a daisy chain. The upcoming single, "Inescapable", is their most developed work yet, dawning on you like a storm cloud as Alison's voice approaches a pitch of Arctic hysteria. Where does the voice come from?
Endearingly, Cranes songs end falteringly, as if they've run out of tape (maybe), as if they've been snapped out of their hypnosis (in the normality of the pub, Cranes are most unCraneslike) as if to say, over-modestly, "Er . . . that's it!" "I find it very hard to end songs, very hard indeed. It's very difficult to write towards a specific point," Jim says. Perhaps the trepidatious, embryonic sound of the Cranes is partly accounted for by the fact they they're still learning to play - play live, in any case. Jim : "Our little secret is, we can't play the single, 'Inescapable' yet!"
After your lengthly studio incubation, is playing live a terrifying experience? Alison : "We're quite into it, now. We've played some truely dreadful gigs in our time. It wasn't so long ago that I used to be absolutely sick with nerves a week before and a week after. Doing the ICA thing recently we went back to feeling like that. It really is quite a wrench, you're so exposed, you haven't got a clue what you're doing, what's going to happen." What about the worshipful tones, the language of infatuation that has characterised your early reviews? Alison : "It's a really great thing at first because no one likes us locally, in Portsmouth. Even today, they still stick the boot in, but after a while you think . . . " Alison smiles weakly at the prospect of becoming a High Priestess to a new generation of Backlash correspondents. "Blimey!"
But you're serious about what you do. How do you live up to the awe struck glare that has inevitably been attracted by Cranes' sound? Alison : "It always seems difficult. Sometimes before a gig I feel I can't go through with it because I never think I'm going to get out of the sort of down-to-earth mood I'm in at the moment. But you always do." Have you started receiving fan mail? Wierd love letters? Mark : "Oh she has! 16 year-old boys mainly." Alison : "They're very sweet, a lot of them! But rather than being adoring fan letters, they tend to be almost mini-reviews of the records or gigs."
Cranes are a classic example of unwitting dramatists, convincingly bewildered, at times alarmed by the attention they have drawn. It's difficult to imagine them ever being able to manipulate a gig audience beyond the expedient of leaving their best known song to the encore. So feverishly involved in the performing and creative process that they're liable to forget even to do that. "We generally forget to do three songs at every gig - at least I think we do," says Jim.
How do you think you're perceive Alison : "I don't know . . . I'd hate to know. I'd never want to see a video of us or anything. I'd much rather be on the inside of it than the outside. Some of the imagery that's used to describe us I really don't like. I don't like the idea of us being perceived as too dark, I really don't." Mark : "Certainly dark isn't the word we'd hope to describe somebody that had just left one of our gigs." Well, it's enjoyable, in a way, but . . . "Not for me it isn't," interrupts Alison. And that's above and beyond the nerves, she says.
All of which paints towards this idea of Cranes' reliving some sort of pain or terror, albeit at a subconscious level. Alison : "Well, everything, or nearly everything I say, not necessarily the words, but the tune and the mood or whatever, reminds me of something or other from my past. So it does relate like that. But it also relates to things I'm hoping for. Sometimes when I'm just singing over a track, rather than consciously writing a song, I can be quite alarmed at what I've just sung."
Jim : "When I write music I can generally get myself into quite a state, but that's because I write at night." Alison : "In the studio we used to work in, the windows were very small and there was this constant buzz of generator and the whole effect made it seem like we were underwater, working in submarine . . . plus, when it was windy, the branches from these trees used to tap randomly against the ceiling. It was very scary being left alone in there."
Cranes are goths and new romantics in a way which the dandies and Monsters who originally monopolised and misused those phrases would never understand, using fear, little by little, as a way of heightening moments of revelation. Alison : "It's a case of finding different levels of yourself, levels of subconsciousness. You can generate a great deal in sounds and melodies that articulates feelings that you couldn't explain to your mum or your friends." Mark : "There's something going on in our music that's greater than the sum of its parts. Speaking as someone who just stands there and plays the music, I know that we can practice for two or three hours, then cheerfully go home and have tea or whatever. Do exactly the same thing live and we come off absolutely exhausted. And that's just physical. Why should that be? Physically, I don't put anything more into it, playing it live. I'd never want to sit down and think why that should be, because if you do you've lost it."
Perhaps Cranes foggy apprehension of what it is they're so palpably approximating towards, the fact that, as with Joy Division before them, you would never suspect them from their behaviour that they harbour any particularly morbid preoccupations suggests that they are blighted with the English difficulty in releasing emotions and therefore slightly disconnected from the creative process. If Alison were Tina Turner, she would simply belt out her angst in a loud, banal, effusive and easily understood manner, as well as see her analyst three times a week. But one imagines in Cranes' case years of inhibitions, mental blocks, the dead weight of life in provincial Portsmouth, all manner of half-forgotten, unvented anxieties have become festered and lodged deep in their subconscious. The English condition.
The sound of Cranes is an oblique, involuntary strategy to dislodge them - and they're coming out strange. Or not coming out properly at all. You can't hear the words. Nothing is resolved. Cranes, perhaps, is the sound of unsuccessful catharsis, an abortive attempt to unburden itself that ends, falteringly, when the process seems too futile or painful. All of this accounts for the fact tat Alison sings like she is buried alive, trapped, held in. Alison : "I prefer the idea of vocals not too upfront, buried in the rest of the sound. But maybe we've overdone that in the past. Personally, I've felt very held in, I've felt very held in to Portsmouth. I've felt very held in just to the physical situation of the way I was living, and I think when you are at a certain age when you don't know what you are going to do or why, with your life then there's an underlying sense of yearning . . . there's a feeling for just wanting to be heard which I think everybody's got, just for the sake of marking your own identity."
Beyond this, Cranes are reluctant to be drawn any further. Who are your musical antecedents? Swans? Foetus? The Birthday Party? Alison : "The groups that have impressed me the most have been mostly male groups that have had an overall lasting impression. I mean, when I saw The Birthday Party and the early Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds gigs I used to actually pass out, the overall impact of the sound, it was so interminable it was just too much, the sheer intensity of it all!"
The difference between Cranes and the likes of Cave, Gira, Foetus, is that they're less burdened by Fetishes - raped slaves, dead donkeys, afterbirth, hard-ons at the sight of car crashes. Their concerns are more abstract, more unbearably light by comparison. But what is the source of their trauma? In the case of Lydia Lunch, it's a specific incident, or series of incidents, involving child abuse and she openly declares that all her work has been a programmatic attempt to banish the ill effects of that from her system. So know we know. Cranes cheerfully deny any such spectacularly traumatic childhood incidents in their own cases. But they look troubled when this speculative question of a secret trauma arises.
Mark : "I think there's probably truth in it for all of us. There certainly is with me. But we're not going to tell you why." Fair enough. Mark : "But having said that, we've all led relatively painless, trauma-free lives . . ." Jim : "Have we?" Mark : "Well yes, you compare us with somebody who's lost their whole family in a car accident, or had their village burnt to the ground in Vietnam. It's more what you do with your circumstances . . ." Alison : "I'm not quite sure. What we're doing is the result of 10 years of intensive experience. That is to say, 10 years of working, solid recording, to be in the position we're in now. That in itself has been an obsession."
"One day I'll write it all down, word for word and go through it with one of your types," she says, grinning. Cranes. The machines, not the birds. The voice inside your stomach. Death to the baggies!
By David Stubbs.
Pics by Kevin WESTENBERG.
© Melody Maker, 1990.