The Big Eyed Family Players- Donkey Songs
(Rusted Rail )
By: Simon Higgs
I seem to remember hearing Big Eyes for the first time about 9 years ago courtesy of Mr Peel and being immediately attracted to their gentle but strange psychedelic world folk which seemed to have a sound all of it’s own, fell in love with that first record ‘Big Eyes Songs’. That initial first flush-of-love has not diminished over time and through a change of name, (albeit slight), some incredible collaborations both in the studio and live with the likes of Rachel Grimes, James Yorkston, Alan Sparhawk and Jeremy Barnes to name but a few and a series of slight but disturbingly beautiful records, I’ve always relished the thought of any new release from them.
‘Donkey Songs’ see’s the Big Eyes Family Players core members of James Green, David A Jaycock and Chris Boyd back to the psychedelic chamber music that first got my attention in 2000 and is their first for the rather interesting Irish ‘Rusted Rail’ label. A heady mix of guitars, harmonium, violins, drums, harp, kazoo, (yes, I did say kazoo and it actually works for a change), piano, recorder, water-bird-whistle organs and banjos mixed with loops all with slightly skewed time signatures could spell a recipe for disaster but as usual in their capable hands they have once again produced a thing of unsettling beauty.
The opener ‘Snowflake Runt’ starts as an almost stoner bluegrass meandering with lazy drums and reed organ building up with other instruments/ subtle vocals slowly being added and such an apparent laissez-faire approach to time keeping that would have had my old music teacher spitting blood. This is however is but an aural illusion designed to suck you in to a disorientating, beautiful other-worldly universe. It’s as if Doug McCombs and John Herndon have been visiting them at night whispering in their folky ears
This tinkering with rhythms and styles is a theme repeated throughout the rest of the 8 tracks though after the beauty of ‘Lavania’ and the absorbing ‘Donkeys disturbed by a meteor shower’ there comes the piano based piece ‘Clunk Orm’ nearly losing me despite my love of piano but pulling me back on repeated listens. The Big Eyed boys then drift off to the Eastern European feel of ‘The Orange Miller’ and ‘Yellow Bird March’, tracks 5 and 6, with dissonant violins and piano/acoustic guitar, the latter slowing things down to a ghostly lament. Both of these songs would feel right at home in the quieter moments of a Kusturica film. Quite beautiful. This is followed by ‘Leave your memories in the Past’ a piano led wander that lives up to its name, reverb drenched echoes of another time and place which works incredibly well..and once again I can imagine being used by some canny filmmaker aiming to unsettle. .
The final leg of this little journey is however a little too uncomfortable with ‘An improvised Drowning’ but it does at least live up to it’s name…improvised?..most definitely..drowning? ..took me a while to cough the brackish water from my lungs. There are instructions to (PLAY LOUD) under this track but I would warn against it as for me it conjured up images of members of a university quartet trying to do something avant-garde and in the main sounding like a bag of hammers. I’m being unnecessarily cruel I’m sure. It is mercifully short and knowing these guys to be consummate musicians, no doubt intentionally tongue in cheek.
Despite my personal feelings toward the final track, this is a little gem of an EP and has enough strange quirky, innovative use of sounds/loops and acoustic instruments to make it stand out from other similar fare. Highly recommended.