Thomas Bartlett; ‘Shelter’

Available 24th July 2020 (on Modern Records/BMG), Thomas Bartlett’s debut solo album ‘Shelter’ contains eight piano nocturnes, inspired, he says, by the work of Chopin, Satie, Ravel, Talk Talk and Keith Jarrett. 

He recorded it in his home studio in New York over two days at the beginning of lockdown as a way of creating something calming.  Thomas explains:  “There’s a space that I really love to be in, as a listener, and as a player.  It’s a feeling of arrival, and comfort, and peace.  It’s an easy place for me to get to, but one that I’m suspicious of because of that.”  He was initially unsure whether the songs were good enough to share, but was quickly convinced by friends.

For those who do not know the name, Thomas Bartlett has been a successful musician, composer, and producer for twenty years.  He has performed as Doveman, with many bands including Antony and the Johnsons, David Byrne, Frightened Rabbit, and his own group, The Gloaming.  As a producer, he has worked with a long list of artists including Glen Hansard, Martha and Rufus Wainwright, Norah Jones, Yoko Ono, Joan Wasser, and Sufjan Stevens, with whom he earned award nominations for “Mystery of Love”.  However, this debut album is something slightly different, featuring as it does just a solo piano, and being straight from his heart; it is inspired by his partner as well as his lifelong love of roses (all of the song titles are the names of different varieties of roses).

Right from the opening notes of ‘Lucida’ Thomas gifts the listener with a beautifully melancholic melody that drips with a sadness and longing, which even the fast arpeggio runs cannot shake, played as it is at a wistfully pedestrian tempo.  The pace somehow slows further on ‘Rubrifolia’ and you appreciate what the composer meant when he describes the album as ‘immersive’; you slip into these songs like you would getting under sheets, or onto a big sofa but it still does require your attention.  It borders on being ambient but is definitely not background music, there is too much movement in the melodies to let it just float over you.

The repetition of phrases in ‘Xanthina’ eloquently expresses a nervous person trying to say something and starting a sentence over and over until it finally flows from them.  The timing, with the pauses and breaks and repeated melodic lines is breath-taking.  The song really feels like a conversation as it moves from one voice to another and it is stunning how one instrument can evoke so much in the listener’s mind.

The playing is of course excellent throughout, but the attention to tone and dynamics shows the benefits of being the producer, composer and player, as Thomas ekes out even more emotion from less complex passages.  Even when there is almost nothing going on, more information about the mood is being presented through the timbre and space captured by this master producer and engineer. 

Thomas mentions his inspiration comes from late era Talk Talk and he is following Mark Hollis’ advice almost to the letter: “Before you play two notes, learn how to play one note… And don’t play one note unless you’ve got a reason to play it.”  It is clear that Thomas has every reason to play these notes.

There is light and shade throughout the album and the tempo increases on ‘Multiflora’ driven by the constantly shifting left hand part.  ‘Moschato’ has a similar rhythmic force in its left hand part but is more withdrawn in its performance.  ‘Phoenicia’ moves beautifully, with key changes and modulations masterfully constructed.  Moments of discord are effortlessly resolved but their presence serves to leave the listener not knowing where the melody will shift to next. 

The final minutes of closing track ‘Rugosa’ draw the listener in closer, I can’t tell whether this is due to the damper pedal not being used or a change in microphone position, but the air and space in the room seems suddenly to close in.  It’s as if at the end of album, musician and listener are not separated by space; music always has been a beautiful way of bringing people closer together and Thomas has demonstrated this perfectly with such a striking ending to his album.

The production and sound achieved reminds me of Paul Buchanan’s solo album “Mid-air”.  The piano is closely mic’d so you hear the hammers on strings and the creak of the pedals; I love this style of recording solo instruments, as you get a feeling you are in the room with the musician, rather than listening from a distance.  Pure recordings of a piano sound have their place but can be a little sterile; here however, the production puts you sitting on the piano bench with Thomas.  That said, if you want that pure sound, you will be forever annoyed with each squeak of the keys and groan of the damper pedal.

The album may have been conceived out of a feeling of isolation, fear and doubt, but it is an emotional and positive listening experience.

Alan Neilson

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