Reverbaphon: Our Heart Beats With Joy

One assumes Paul Smith's choice of moniker alludes to his music's reverberative qualities, but in fact its origin is rather more unusual. In Bristol 1990, while acquiring basic gear like a four-track, drum machine, toy drum kit, and child's keyboard at the outset of his music-making forays, he created the 'reverbaphone,' a reed mouthpiece connected to a long cardboard tube with a spring tensioned along its length. Using the variable speed four track, he recorded the instrument, altering the pitch during recording to get a tune. This rather eccentric scenario conveys some hint of his music's equally idiosyncratic style, a mercurial music that eludes pigeonholing, a quality that's finally a key part of its charm. His unique hybrid of electronic and natural sounds marries contemporary song craft with folk stylings that evoke Smith's Dundee origins and his current home in Glasgow, Scotland. But don't confuse Reverbaphon music with that of other “folktronica” artists, as Smith's music ranges more broadly than that delimiting label suggests and evidences a strong 'Scottish' flavour. One guesses that he would choose a malfunctioning electronic device that produces alien noises over the latest and most sophisticated programming software.

Sonically, the unifying element of Our Heart Beats With Joy (The Curved World Outside) is the accordion given its ubiquity, and in one case (“Christa's Accordion”) where Smith uses the instrument to create an ecstatic drone, fleet fingerings mimicking the ululations of a Sufi singer, it's the sole instrument. “Kartoffein” encapsulates the album's sonic breadth into a single song by interlaying intricate weaves of guitar and bass with an aggressive cymbal-laden drum sample; the song's overriding melancholy is deepened when stately accordion tones join in and ends even more stirringly when soft organ and string tones appear. Elsewhere Smith balances scurrying drum machine beats with harp-like tinklings and melodica (“Parameters of Love,” “Hydrocow”) and fashions drone (blurry swirls of synthesizer, accordion, and saxophone in “The Curved World Outside”) and ambient episodes (the meditative “Cut and Dry Song”). He adds a monotone, remonstrative vocal to “Äesthetik der function” and a Scottish brogue-laden recitation to nylon guitars in “The Hermit Returns (Again).” Like the opener “Kartoffein,” the title track “Our Heart Beats With Joy” distills Reverbaphon's essence by merging the old with the new, specifically querulous synth noises with melancholy melodica tones.

Benbecula first became aware of Reverbaphon in 2001 due to his inclusion on a compilation produced by a Dundee collective but it would be eleven more years before Smith's EP debut The Medium Thru which Sound Travels is No Longer Present would emerge. Two years in the making, the successor, Our Heart Beats With Joy (The Curved World Outside), isn't overly long at forty minutes but its through-composed songs are packed with detail. And while it's definitely 'serious,' it's not excessively morose or lugubrious but exudes a playfulness and occasional wry touch too. What ultimately holds it together is his meticulous and painstaking approach to each song and the rich expansiveness of the arrangements.

November 2004