Matinée Orchestra: Matinée Orchestra

Though hard to believe, the Matinée Orchestra's eponymous debut is actually a 'laptop' album created by Andrew Hodson (aided by a smattering of guests, including Peter and David Brewis of Field Music, Caroline Thorp, and Maximo Park vocalist Paul Smith), though you'd never know it. Somehow Hodson has managed to infuse his eight pieces with a naturalistic, rickety charm that's wholly convincing and, more importantly, charming. Weaving bright melodies from dusty old pianos, see-sawing strings, gentle flutes, and muted trumpets, his 'toy orchestra' at times suggests the instrumental sides of Psapp and Múm, and with wiry synths added to the multi-layered mix (“I'll Never Be Afraid Again,” “Run For Cover (It's Going To Rain)”), the group's sound also recalls Stereolab and The Olivia Tremor Control.

In the lovely opener “Thanking You For Listening,” a sweet flute melody floats over cascading vibes motifs, followed by a blaring cavalcade of trumpets and a chimerical vocal chant. The instruments aren't always in perfect time with one another, a presumably deliberate move by Hodson to boost the naturalistic impression. Some pieces are more uptempo: a viola, trumpet, and a twanging electric guitar weave sweetly melancholic strains over martial rhythms in “The Matinée March” while the warped town hall dance “I'll Never Be Afraid Again” builds locomotive steam from vinegary strings and an army of acoustic pickers. The thirteen-minute “It's a Fantasy World / Everyone Has the Right to Protest Even if No One Listens” unites all of the group's strengths into a single, epic wonderland. Though stately flute and string melodies conjure a dreamy paradise at the beginning, the tune quickly transforms into a continually morphing cloud of hazy psychedelia. The lullaby waltz “Pray, Rock, Stone, Paper, Scissors” highlights Hodson's gentle side. Even more affecting, “Imagination of a Watermelon” brings the album to the sweetest close imaginable with an intoxicating duet of music-box motifs and singing string melodies. It's merely one final triumphant gesture on this wholly beguiling collection.

March 2006