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The Wisdom of Harry | Torch Division (Matador/Faux-Lux)
After spending the last half-decade deliberately distancing himself from his 80's Creation jangle-rock roots, it seems that ex-Weather Prophet (and current Ellis Island Sound man), Peter Astor has finally found - on this second full album under The Wisdom Of Harry guise - a reconciliatory route for both his formative songwriting impulses and his latter-day experimentalist explorations.  Eschewing the somewhat over-egged electronic embellishments that characterised 2000's full-length debut 'House of Binary' and side-stepping the lo-fidelity of early single releases (as collected on 1999's impressive 'Stars of Super 8' compilation), 'Torch Division'  is the most well-rounded songs-based set Astor has put to the public in sometime.  Employing ambidextrous Ellis Island Sound partner (and State River Widening ringleader) David Sheppard to add deconstructed drums/bass/guitar parts and sundry studio touches to ninety per cent of these latest recordings certainly must have something to do with Astor's renewed focus.  
Switching evenly between the raucous (as on the Krautrocking Sports Boy) and the reflective (the downright lovely Latin-slanted Neon Suit) the Astor/Sheppard partnership forges some kind of new sub-genre - 'post-rustica' if you like.  With a recorded-in-a-woodshed ambience and a dual-love of plugged (arcane drum machines/synths/samplers) and unplugged (toy pianos/acoustic guitars) instrument-ation, complimentary comparisons could conceivably be made with Sparklehorse's first (and still best) album 'Vivadixie-submarinetransmissionplot' and Howe Gelb's home-recorded 'Hisser' LP.  
Astor's approach to lyric-writing even seems to share some of Mark Linkous's self-imposed isolationism and Gelb's surrealism.  Whether looking through the eyes of a disillusioned ex-space-traveller on Joe The Astronaut or alluding to the machiavellian mechanics of the music industry on Tinseltown, it's heartening to note that Astor's encroaching middle-age hasn't weakened his grasp of malice and his sense of the macabre.  Besides - as the closing Ladies & Gentleman attests - who else could make a song with a suicidal subtext seem so valedictory and so viciously funny; "Well (whatever you do) the world will keep spinning / The sad songs will get sung / So break out the fucking trumpets / Bring on the kettle drums / Because the vultures are circling and rocks are raining down from the sun."  Occasionally though, Astor's dark-edged cynicism is a little distracting, particularly when the album is so deliberately built around his parched semi-spoken vocals.  Furthermore, although it's good to hear the balance has been tipped in favour of vocals/songs, it wouldn't have hurt to incorporate a few instrumental passages to give the album a more variable pace and texture.  But negligible nit-picking aside, as an exercise in growing old without giving-up on self-reinvention, Astor's 'Torch Division' is well-worth volunteering for

Adrian Pannett
CWAS #13 - Autumn 2003

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