no-man – Housekeeping & Swagger (Reviews)

Reviews of the no-man ‘Housekeeping’ and ‘Swagger’ collections

by Geoff Bailie

Housekeeping – The OLI Years 1990-1994 – Box Set
Swagger: Lost Not Lost Volume One 1989/1990

Steven Wilson is not an unfamiliar name to this website. I’d suspect a straw poll would show that many fans connected with his music with Porcupine Tree at some point from 2000 onwards. A large part of Wilson’s musical story is rooted in a band called No-Man, the other sustained member of which, Tim Bowness, will also be known for his own music, his involvement in Burning Shed, and the Album Years podcast with Wilson.

The new Housekeeping box set features all of the No-Man output from 1990 to 1994 on the label One Little Indian, and I guess that might be significantly before many of us had connected with either artist. For most of those years, the band was a 3 piece in which Wilson and Bowness were joined by violinist Ben Coleman. One notable aspect of these early recordings is that they feature name names that will reappear later in the story – Japan members Karn, Jansen and Barbieri, Robert Fripp, Colin Edwin and Chris Maitland.

The 5 disc set contains their first two albums Loveblows & Lovecries and Flowermouth, the singles compilation Lovesighs, outtakes, alternate versions and the band’s sessions for BBC radio from the period. So what can you find within? A description I read which to me sums it up is: electronic pop music, epic ambient rock suites and groove-enhanced ballads…

CD1 – Lovesighs – An Entertainment

This is a collection of singles and b sides from 1990 to 1991, performed in the main by the trio, which essentially means Bowness on vocals, Coleman on violin, with Wilson providing almost all of the instrumentation.

A great example of this is Days in the Trees (US Remix) – a track that appears in a few incarnations within the box set. A trip-hop beat provides the base to a keyboard pad with Tim’s suitably reversed voice leading the song. The violin adds atmosphere to the chorus, as the instrumentation builds, adding bass and electric guitar. The violin shifts from sounds you might expect from that instrument, to distorted sustained notes. 4 minutes in there’s a breakdown where the violin comes to the fore as gradually the other instruments rejoin. As this builds the violin rises to an, at times, atonal frenzy, before the whole track slips back into the original groove. The whole track ends with some ambient noises within a closing soundscape. Many of the contemporary British music newspapers named this a single of the week, and its beauty and sonic innovation clearly show why.

Such innovation is present throughout this eclectic disc. Perhaps the most famous track here is the cover version of Donovan’s Colours, which focuses on Bowness’s voice, while a track like Reich is a sparse instrumental backing with a sample spoken word piece on top, or Ives which is very much a violin piece before shifting to a sound collage. There’s certainly lots to enjoy in this initial set with mature music from the relatively new band.

CD2 – Loveblows and Lovecries – A Confession

The opening violin piece Loveblow doesn’t quite prepare you for Only Baby, a strong electronic pop song – if you heard No-Man’s last album, Love You To Bits, you will hear a clear link to that style. Karn, Barbieri and Jansen, 3/4 of Japan, are the main musicians on Sweetheart Raw which follows, which is enhanced by some creative guitar work from Wilson.

There are a variety of songs an styles on this one, with standouts for me being Heaven’s Break, which, unlike many, doesn’t have a pulsating electronic beat, and has some fantastic violin playing, and Tulip, whose outro guitar part sits in contrast to with the rest of the song – this uncut version is a great addition to the box set.

CD3 – Singles

This CD is a collection tracks from singles and EPs from 1992 to 1993. Bleed is an intriguing electronic piece with lots of strong dynamics – what’s interesting about a track like this, and much of this CD, is the strength right from the start of Tim Bowness’ voice which, if anything, is the signature link in the catalogue. By that I mean, some bands get their consistency from the sound of the musical backing, but No-Man is pinned together, for me, by the strong vocal presence of Tim Bowness.

There is a lot of very strong electronic pop on this album, which, if you’re a prog metal fan, or even a Porcupine Tree fan, may not be your thing!

CD4 – Flowermouth

Studio album number 2 marks the turning of a page in the band’s history book, which results in a shift in sound from what came before. It seems like the band’s ambition and game plan shifted from this point onwards, resulting in this excellent album! Reich like percussive/ repetitive sounds start Angel Gets Caught In The Beauty Trap, joined by a beautifully lyrical piano part. An acoustic edge is present with guitar, trumpet, saxophone and violin get added into the mix. It’s one of the strongest piece on the set in my opinion. The shift here is that the instrumentation gets more lush and familiar names such as Robert Fripp and Mel Collins add to the sonic landscape. It’s a much more mature and developed album, and the closing Things Change has an incredible violin solo with an almost Comfortably Numb style ending.

CD5 – Radio Sessions 1992 – 94

Closing the box set is a set of Radio session curated from various sources recorded across the two year period. The best comparison would be to treat this an accompanying live album to the rest of the set. If you compare the two versions of Day In The Trees, you’ve got the 1992 version which is accompanied by a band, which includes Mick Karn playing a strong bass part, I am guessing played by Mick Karn. The 1993 version of the same track is from an acoustic session – it’s fascinating to the hear the acoustic guitar / violin version of the song.

The set closes with a 4 song set from 1994, featuring 4 Flowermouth songs in a live format. In these arrangements, they are stripped of some of the production, showing themselves to be really strong tracks.

As a No-Man fan, this box set is a great way to gather the chunk of music made by the band during a particular era. It does a really good job of telling the story of the progression of the band. I’ve seen a YouTube walk through of the packaging and it looks very lavish with lots of imagery and liner notes – everything you’d want from a box set.

Swagger: Lost But Not Lost Volume One 1989/1990

Released at the same time is an album which gathers recordings, many previous unreleased, from a period before the band signed their first recording deal. The two things that stand out about this release are: (1) there is a lot more guitar. Steven Wilson will regularly play down his approach to playing the guitar, but many fans will agree that his unique style is something that’s very distinctive and perfect for the song; (2) Tim Bowness’s vocal style in most of the material is very different from what follows. It’s been referred to as his “before voice” and on many occasions it has a more abrasive edge, in a good way (!) compared to what came next. The art rock influences (Roxy and Bowie in particular) are strong on this album, but tracks like See No Angels and Learn To Fear are strong and mature in their conception and execution.

If you are a hard core follower of Tim Bowness and Steven Wilson, this box set is most definitely a must-buy item! If you are an explorer, intrigued by the project, I would suggest checking out the Flowermouth album as a taster, and proceed from there accordingly. Overall I am looking forward to getting my physical copy, and am delighted that this thorough compilation, packed with interesting additions for long term fans, is hitting the shelves.

CD1. Lovesighs – An Entertainment
Heartcheat Pop
Days in the Trees – US remix
Drink Judas
Heartcheat Motel
Kiss Me Stupid
Iris Murdoch Cut Me Up
Days in the Trees – Reich
Days in the Trees – Ives
Days in the Trees – Bartok

CD2. Loveblows and Lovecries – A Confession
Only Baby
Sweetheart Raw
Break Heaven
Beautiful and Cruel
Painting Paradise
Heaven’s Break
Taking It Like a Man
Babyship Blue
Tulip – unedited master

CD3. Singles
Ocean Song
Back to the Burning Shed
Sweetheart Raw – full length version
Only Baby – Breathe for Me
Only Baby – Be for Me
Long Day Fall
Painting Paradise – single re-recording
Heaven Taste

CD4. Flowermouth
Angel Gets Caught in the Beauty Trap
You Grow More Beautiful
Animal Ghost
Soft Shoulders
Shell of a Fighter
Teardrop Fall
Watching Over Me
Things Change

CD5. Radio Sessions 1992-94
Break Heaven – Nicky Campbell session
Heartcheat Pop – Nicky Campbell session
Housekeeping – Nicky Campbell session
Ocean Song – Hit the North session
Days in the Trees – Hit the North session
Taking It Like a Man – Hit the North session
Lovecry – GLR session
Days in the Trees – GLR session
Sweetheart Raw – The Way Out session
Teardrop Fall – acoustic session
Watching Over Me – acoustic session
Shell of a Fighter – acoustic session
You Grow More Beautiful – acoustic session

1. Flowermouth
2. Bleed
3. Life Is Elsewhere
4. Mouth Was Blue
5. Curtain Dream
6. Learn To Fear
7. See No Angels
8. Sit Silent
9. Swirl

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