Irma Vep (aka Edwin Stevens) has, for a long time, been crafting weird and wonderful psych-tinged pop. Firstly, as a member of the bands Sex Hands and then The Birthmarks. He’s also explored crazy stoner rock with Dom Jolly. Then there’s his sizeable contribution to Robert Sotelo’s excellent ‘Infinite Sprawling’ album last year. To say Stevens is prolific would still somehow feel an understatement.
On said Sotelo album Stevens teamed up with fellow guitarist Ruari Maclean (Vital Idles), who also collaborated on this new album under Stevens’ solo moniker, released via Gringo Records. Another long time collaborator, Andrew Cheetham (Kiran Leonard, Yerba Mansa), is also present on the drums. ‘Embarrassed Landscape’ kind of feels like the culmination of Stevens’s contribution to all of these projects combined with his previous, more folky, work under this guise.
It’s an album of heavy contrasts. At times wild, at others beautiful.
Grandiose opener King Kong is akin to the sprawling brass infused jams of Spiritualized complete with a crashing crescendo freak out for the first 5 minutes. It establishes a second, more laid back, Krautrock groove before Stevens’ distorted Welsh accent, by way of Manchester, enters. The track builds with wild wah guitar scrawls and hypnotic drums, almost like Liverpool weirdos Clinic. It’s not a surprise, then, to hear that guitar whiz Kiran Leonard contributed here.
As noted before, this is an album of contrasts. There are songs here that can be paired together in their approaches. The resonant folky Disaster follows, with its beautiful string arrangements and lazy summery guitars contributing to Pavement and Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci vibes. Standards is equally lush sounding, adding to the cocktail with piano from Moema Meade (Lady Neptune, Dog Legs, Sacred Paws, Dom Jolly).
I Do What I Want and Not even both provide superbly crafted retro pop. These perhaps come closest to Stevens’ work with The Birthmarks.
Not Even in particular, is great.
The chiming guitars get fuzzier as the instrumentation and Stevens’ vocal delivery become increasingly wild and unhinged. The Feeling Is Gone stands alone yet fits perfectly amongst the warped folk and retro pop. It’s a psychedelic, almost Venus In Furs-style, paisley soup, although more cutting and aggressive in approach.
There is often a melding of the surreal and the beautiful on this record, and this is perhaps best exemplified by Tears Are The Sweetest Sauce. It sounds like a lamenting country ballad (the sort that a mother might sing a child to sleep to) but the malice displayed in the lyrics supplies a dark comic edge. The central character taking particular joy in the suffering of others “I made you cry, and I know why, your tears are the sweetest sauce”. Those who follow Stevens’ often hilarious and online persona, that revels in the grotesque, won’t find this so shocking.
The record ebbs and flows enough to mix things up without losing the sense that the songs belong together, but also happily embraces consecutive extremes. One of the most chaotic climaxes – that of Not Even – is followed by ‘Embarrassed Landscape’s’ most subtle moment Purring. Just Stevens and his guitar, it winds things down nicely for the closer – Canary.
The strings married with great use of wah and warbling flange, create a lush (embarrassed?) landscape.
In structure it almost verges on soul. Particularly the gorgeous chorus. It culminates in a heady mix of pulsating strings and gentle feedback.
On a fine album full of peculiar yet satisfying juxtapositions this is perhaps the closest to providing a happy medium. It retains the swaying countrified ballad feel and the surreal lyrics. This time with imagery of the ghost of a canary brushing his teeth. This is all wrapped up in a mild swooning psychedelia.
‘Embarrassed Landscape’ is out via Gringo Records on 3rd April.
You may enjoy this if you like: The Birthmarks, Graham Coxon, Pavement, Let’s Wrestle, Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, The Rebel