tue 26/09/2017

Reissue CDs Weekly: Shelleyan Orphan | reviews, news & interviews

Reissue CDs Weekly: Shelleyan Orphan

Reissue CDs Weekly: Shelleyan Orphan

Box set dedicated to arty British duo pays tribute to their recently lost Caroline Crawley

In a bubble: Caroline Crawley and Jem Tayle aka Shelleyan OrphanOne Little Indian

Considering Shelleyan Orphan, Melody Maker said “someone’s been smearing themselves in art…were they artists or did they just wallow in shit?” While the late Eighties’ British music press often made assertions to seek attention, slagging off a band because they sought to follow their own path is, with hindsight, rich given that roughly contemporary cover stars such as Chakk and Set The Tone dealt in music so precisely fixed in the moment they now sound as dated as Sheena Easton’s efforts to get funky and U2’s lunges at the blues.

Shelleyan Orphan – the duo Caroline Crawley and Jem Tayle – existed in a bubble. The new box set Shelleyan Orphan stresses how much this is the case. In their joint essay for the booklet, Crawley and Tayle begin by referencing the 1967 baroque-psychedelic single “Excerpt From ‘A Teenage Opera’”, the stop-motion children’s TV series Pogles' Wood, "Puff the Magic Dragon", bassoons and flutes. Elsewhere, the Pre-Raphaelites are mentioned.

Shelleyan Orphan box setTheir first album, 1987’s Helleborine, featured bassoon, cello, cor anglais, harp, harpsichord, oboe, viola and violins. Paddy Bush, Kate’s brother, contributed mandolin and tamboura. Veteran folk and jazz bassist Danny Thompson played double bass. A shelved 1985 B-side (heard here for the first time) showcased the voice of Catweazle actor Geoffrey Bayldon. Later, members of The Cure were collaborators.

It’s a rich, unashamedly non-rockist, stew. The results draw a line between Cocteau Twins and The Dream Academy with dashes of The Smiths. Pastoral British art-music with a goth edge then.

Shelleyan Orphan is a five-disc clamshell box reissuing the albums Helleborine, Century Flower (1989) and Humroot (1992), alongside a new disc of BBC sessions, B-sides, demos and outtakes, and a DVD with a TV appearance and three promo videos. Each disc comes in a card wallet with an inner sleeve. Their 2008 return album We Have Everything we Need is not included. The package also includes a reproduction of a hand-written note by Tayle penned in tribute to Crawley, who died – while this release was being prepared – in October 2016.

Shelleyan OrphanThe entry point is Disc Four’s first two tracks, “Cavalry of Cloud” and “Melody of Birth”. Recorded for the BBC radio on 3 June 1984, they catch Crawley and Tayle with oboe, piano and string players as they were first heard by the world. Looking past the rustic-classical nature of the arrangements and Crawley’s wandering voice, it’s difficult to find any context for this in-the-raw Shelleyan Orphan. Maybe Virginia Astley, The Marine Girls (and solo Tracey Thorne) and perhaps Scritti Politti were on a similar wavelength. Rough Trade’s Geoff Travis heard the session, was moved to seek them out and signed them.

Next, head to second album Century Flower. The production is polished and there is a marked stepping-up of the use of electric guitar and some wildly intrusive saxophone. This was, on their terms, a rock album. With some hard squinting it’s just-about possible to see The Waterboys as kinfolk. Danny Thompson must have done a double take while playing on “Summerflies” as the influence of his old band Pentangle rings through.

Assimilating this intriguing package in one sitting is not a good idea. Homing-in on one disc, letting it bed in and then heading to another makes most sense as a strategy to get as much from Shelleyan Orphan as possible. It’s not often the reappearance of most of a band’s catalogue is so thought provoking. Heard now, give or take the odd clunky contemporaneous production touch, Caroline Crawley and Jem Tayle sound of their time – these influences could not have collided at any point before the Eighties – yet also timeless. No doubt, this is what they intended.

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