Tout’s music has its roots in American country and folk styles, working them into languid soundscapes that are occasionally spiked with jolts of folk- and acid-rock. On this outing, licks of trumpet, jaw harp and bowed saw add a subtle hint of Morricone.
3rd is a significant step up from the group’s last effort, Second (Trestle, 2013), although that album was seductive enough. On 3rd they achieve a more distinctive, more cohesive sound, which is more satisfying than Second‘s aggregate of influences.
Tout’s principals, Nick Downes and Johnny Fryer (who I last reviewed as part of the duo Calibos) are guitarists with extended musical palettes. Both also play synth, piano and lap steel. The core quartet also has Simone Potter on strings and piano, and Johnny Mckemey on drums. Peter Bennie takes over bass duties that were previously shared between Downes and Fryer, while Robin A. Dalton’s trumpet is very sparingly and effectively deployed, as are the musical saw and jaw harp of David Coulter, who has previously worked with the likes of Test Dept and The Pogues, but now works in musical theatre (notably, he was Associate Musical Director and multi-instrumentalist in Tom waits and Robert Wilson’s staging of The Black Rider).
Some of Trestle Records’ tags for this album suggest broader influences, including Krautrock, classical, and blues, but most of these are misleading when just three serve to sum the music nicely: alt-country ambient americana. Neil Young gets a namecheck too, and that seems appropriate enough, since although Tout’s music is instrumental, not lyric based, and cinematic rather than rocking or balladeering, there’s always a song just below the surface.
For every piece that passes in a heat haze of wistful reverie (“I’ve Laboured Long and Hard for Bread”) there’s another (“For Honour and for Riches”) that admits more expansive imaginings. Where strings and saw determine the former’s melancholic tone, trumpet and plucked bass lend the twinned guitars of the latter resolution.
Those track titles are derived from outlaw poetry: “I’ve Laboured…” and “For Honour…” are the first two lines of a four-line stanza by the appropriately English-born American stagecoach robber Charles Earl Bowles, aka Black Bart.
As Londoners, one might expect Tout to sound like musical magpies in such an overtly (imagined as) American soundscape, but their take on Americana seems focused on particular sonic textures rather than romantic visions, so this isn’t a problem. Despite all the signifiers there’s a box-freshness to the group’s rich but uncluttered sound.
The Black Bart stanza, and the quartet of tracks that close the album and take their titles from it, conclude: “But on My Corns Too Long You’ve Tread” / “You Fine Haired Sons of Bitches”. On the former number, Fryer and Downes layer multiple shimmering and reverberant guitar parts over a tanpura drone, emotively enriched by Simone Potter’s viola, and an insistent pulse of bass and drums: shades of Silver Mt. Zion. The latter is a gentle lustre of bowed cello and saw, brushed percussion, and lap steel.
Six other pieces, titled after a six-line stanza by another, this time anonymous, masked highwayman make up a longer suite of ‘songs’ that begins the album. Dalton’s trumpet is the first and principle sound, introducing the unhurried “So Here I’ve Stood” and effectively signposting the acoustic, proto-ambient drift of Tout’s music. But the uptempo and lucid melodicism of “While Wind and Rain” serves notice that what follows will be shapely, directional and melodic, notwithstanding flashes of steel and coarse-grained texture.
Where the vast floodplain of now readily-available musics invites interminable introspection and long-form indulgence, the easeful flow of 3rd‘s narrative belies its authors’ attention to form and detail.
Nick Downes guitar, percussion, synth, piano, lap steel, harmonica; Jonny Fryer guitar, percussion, synth, piano, lap steel, tanpura; Johnny Mckemey drums; Simone Potter viola, cello, piano; Peter Bennie double bass, electric bass; David Coulter saw, jaw harp; Robin A. Dalton trumpet.