Written by: Dave Cantrell
How long has it been? Too long? Not long enough? Well, we tend to think that however long or short it’s been since The Monochrome Set’s last full-length – for the [ahem] record it’s been almost three long years since Fabula Mendax, an album with the none rarer distinction, given its subject matter, of being both post-plague and pre-plague – it must by definition be precisely the proper moment simply because, well, Allhallowtide is here and we have, over the years, developed a well-earned faith in the innate unerringness of this Bid-led lot’s judgment, be it in the creative realm or business-related or, hell, even what’s for lunch. In any case, it’s not like we’re talking The Black Watch here where one can barely pip the last period on a review of the latest effort before the next one’s being released. This will, after all, ‘only’ be TMS’s fifth long-player since 2015’s crazy good Spaces Everywhere (all of them, this one included, on the Tapete label) and seventh since the band’s more-than-slight return to active duty in 2012. No, one has to believe that what lends most weight to the impression the Set have been on an even more torrid pace of late – and to be fair here, that amount of output, at that level of quality, is indeed rare for any project of this vintage – derives as much as anything from the mere fact they came back at all.
While never ostensibly a band that came into the post-punk pop world with quote-unquote something to say, it regardless turned out to be the case that the font of spry inimitable songcraft (and my what a captivatingly effervescent font it is) that fed the initial rush of now-immortal albums during that halcyon crux of the late 70s early 80s refused to be turned off, its spigot apparently unreachable or perhaps just stuck in the ‘on’ position. At which point what choice did they have, really, other than returning to that particular pocket of the fray that they themselves had created. Though their work has long been significant to other artists and of course their relatively modest but rabid fanbase, TMS couldn’t reasonably be considered to be capitalizing on their former commercial glory nor, for that matter, some spur of vanity. No, The Monochrome Set came back for that simplest and best of reasons: they had to. In retrospect, if thought about, it was inevitable. There was just no way, especially insofar as primary songwriting force Bid was concerned, that that restless genie was going to content itself by staying in its bottle sifting through stacks of memory-stored polaroids with “Eine Symphonie…” echoing through the chamber on endless loop. Retirement, in short, never appealed, much to our collective relief – and unbelievable luck, I might add – as the string of albums thenceforth have been, each in their own way, uniformly divine, a string further embellished by the addition of Allhallowtide (states the writer surprising no one).
With an ebullience that has, over the years, been tempered by the aesthetic equivalent of a deep and resonant smoky scotch, with all that boutique cleverness that came somersaulting off their earlier recordings still intact but now more balletic than spryly rambunctious, the miracle that is The Monochrome Set circa 2022 exemplifies, without fuss or fanfare – and whether they wish to or not – what’s possible from within that odd nether space, shared my those of us along for the ride since “He’s Frank,” where age and energy eye each other warily waiting for the other to blink and hoping they never do. This is the band Dorian Gray would choose to play the day he notices a gray hair. Though not their intention, surely, there’s nonetheless an undernote of immortality in the current-day TMS sound that, for the length of a full-length anyway, makes such concerns evaporate into thin air.
As if to throw a subtle spanner into the spokes of orthodoxy, Allhallowtide kicks off with the title track, a piano-anchored, deftly embroidered (which likely goes without saying, we admit) slice of tango-esque pop that’s just as quietly triumphant in tone – especially as it hits the chorus – as it is that level of dignified poignant we’ve come to expect since the birth of the current run. One could be tempted to say it sets the tone which maybe to some extent it does but really, to be honest, sheer quality-wise all eleven tracks on here are, unshockingly, interchangeable.
“Ballad of the Flaming Man,” a buzzing brassy organ track whirring behind and under it like some kind of primal pop machine gives way to the noirish afternoon romp of “My Deep Shoreline,” sunny with a certain conflicted shade hovering in its wake, giving way in turn to the pensively mild exoticism of “Moon Gardener” which itself gives way to the likely (?) pandemic-inspired jaunt of “Really in the Wrong Town” that, in classic TMS fashion, marries the hilarious with the ominous in a manner both off-hand and keenly pointed that no other band can manage anywhere near this well assuming it would even occur to them which we rather guarantee it likely wouldn’t. I could go on here (the super retro-futuristic “Hello, Save Me” certainly begs a mention) but what’s the bloody point. Suffice to say that on this new effort there is, as ever, no dip in the tide.
I will, however, on a more general note, add this: seldom has there been a band that’s graced their songs with such an abundance of subtly elaborate bits of filigree that, in the actual act of listening, coheres into enough of a sumptuous whole one’s too much in thrall to notice. Which is as it should be, of course, but notice we implore you do, seeing as being delighted by craft of this magnitude is a joy and one can never have too much of that.
And really, that’s it, isn’t it? Craft. At the core of The Monochrome Set’s M.O. is this deeply integral – one might even say holistic – approach to their ‘product.’ A penchant for melody that they’ve always seemed to produce with a facility akin to breathing, deft arrangements that appear to simultaneously skim the surface and plumb far beneath it while wasting not a moment of space, lush production (in this case by both Bid and Jon Clayton) that despite that calls no attention to itself, all of it presided over, anchored even, by that light baritone Bid-voice that lands rather precisely between a London sophisticate’s burr and that of an unusually clever and articulate street poet. Not overall a complicated formula, we suppose, but very few are those that have ever (and we mean ever) brought it to fruition with anything near their satisfying consistency.
While the world of intelligent sophisti-pop continues to mourn the loss of The Jazz Butcher, let all hearts turn toward The Monochrome Set and smile at the good fortune that fortune herself still smiles upon us in the form of this curious ensemble (in this incarnation the principals being Bid, forever bassist Andy Warren, Mike Urban drums and Athen Ayren the fresh recruit on keys) that carries on like a never-ending engine of melody and sure-fired inventiveness. There, in TMS’s unique brand of unforced elegance, may we, turning away from whatever woes, find solace and escape, beauty and grace, all in the perfect little pop context we call home. Yes, as per its title we pray for the dead and give remembrance but on the arrival of this particular Allhallowtide we cannot but help to also give thanks for the very fact of being alive. If music is indeed a gift, and who but a churl could disagree, none have been, nor continue to be, more generous than The Monochrome Set. Long may they thrive.