‘Jane And Barton Too’

 Jane and Barton’s first album in 40 years is as beautiful and idiosyncratic as the first one was.

You do know something by Jane and Barton, you really do. You might not think you do but within seconds of hearing It’s A Fine Day it will come back to you, one way or another. One of the strangest and most fragile songs to ever become an indie hit, it has been remixed so many times that Edward Barton claims the only line that hasn’t been reused is “we will have salad”. The most famous version is by Opus III but you may also recognise the tune from the fact that Kylie’s Confide In Me took the melody for the string arrangement (for which Barton is now credited as a co-writer). It’s so weirdly ubiquitous that you sometimes forget just how odd a song it is.

It’s A Fine Day is less a song and more a musical extract from a diary. There’s a brooding intensity to the melody and the production that is hard to put your finger on, because there’s really barely any production there. But there’s a subtle air of menace about it, like a dark cloud over the horizon. There’s a whole rich seam of music from the eighties that evokes a similar mood: Young Marble Giants and the various solo work of its members, Deux Filles, some Durutti Column records and the music of Virginia Astley for example. The song has also had a huge influence on indie music generally, mainly because it absolutely focuses on the beauty of the mundane and every day. Certainly it shares a strange, slightly otherworldly tone to some of the music of, say, Trixies Big Red Motorbike and Dolly Mixture. There’s a sort of liminal sense that the world is finely balanced between the innocence and dread. It’s a delicate zone, but one I am very relieved to say this reunion record has no problem returning to.

It’s always tough returning to a unique and loved formula after years away, and Jane and Barton Too could have gone very wrong. Theirs is a brief but precious legacy. This is the first record released by the once couple in forty years, and as a huge fan of the original records it pleases me beyond words to say it’s as beautiful and strange and idiosyncratic as the first one was.  Barton’s solo career has been… unusual to say the least (seriously, check out below his performance of I’ve Got No Chicken But I’ve Got Five Wooden Chairs on The Tube and try and imagine the faces of the tea time viewers watching it) but he successfully manages to find what made the original records special while also addressing the inevitable baggage of forty years of ageing.

Jane and Barton Too starts with Jane Lancaster singing the lines “late at night, earlyish in the morning, I take my loneliness for a walk” over Barton’s basic keyboard accompaniment. It’s a song about those hours where late night and early morning blur together, and the whole album seems about that blur. I hate to keep using jargon like liminal, but some jargon exists because it’s the best way to express a complex idea. By liminal, I mean that sense the effect of the edge of two very different states rubbing against each other It’s all over this record: innocence and dread; nostalgia and regret; night and day; solitude and loneliness. It’s a remarkably confident record for expressing these subtle emotions, but is also careful to not be too brooding about the past by dint of the fact Barton is a very funny lyricist, happy to use the words “wazzing down” if things feel unduly melancholy.

Stella is a story song, with Barton interested in the sadness and beauty of the everyday, but just when you think you know the sort of record this is going to be, Hey It’s The Twenty Twenties slinks into your ears like a down market Saint Etienne trying to play a song by Denim era Lawrence. Again, this sort of ironic and wearied state of the world song is nothing new, but Jane Lancaster relishes Barton’s more mordant and witty lyrics like “all that weaponry was recycled down the tip and everyone shared their pie and chips”. At times the record reminds me of what Pulp would have sounded like if Jarvis Cocker had just kept singing about the chip board in Disco 2000 and ignored the song’s main characters.

Shushy Time is the first song to directly play with the memory of It’s A Fine Day, with Lancaster at her most intimate and Barton’s music barely there. It’s another song that openly evokes memories of the past, in this case daydreaming at school, thinking of “less and less and less and less and let the darkness make you calm it’s shushy time”. It’s not so much a song nostalgic for childhood as it is a song about the dreams of childhood. It’s a far more complex emotion, and is very clever at expressing how out childhood isn’t anywhere near as idyllic as we like to think it was.

Give Your Mum A Kiss is ostensibly another childhood song, but again seems to be not so much about childhood itself but how we frame those memories as adults. This strange zone of emotion is there in the album’s packaging, with handwritten lyrics like diary entries and the front cover itself. These are two of Barton’s apparently many teddy bears (Wolfy and Pinky) which he has rescued from skips and bins over the years. His fondness for discarded objects surfaces again in Daisys and Buttercups. There is something deeply sad and moving about the lyrics “hear that wind, it’s as cruel as my first day at infant school but I’m as comfy as a mattress in a skip”. It’s a ridiculous image that manages to cut through far better than a lazy cliché could ever do.

Sexy Guy and Sexy Girl is hilarious (“I see you’re admiring my dress: twenty quid dead stock, British Home Stores”) and sounds like Lawrence during the Denim/Go Kart Mozart era, but with some John Shuttleworth and Vic and Bob thrown in. The keyboard settings are both very basic also weirdly modern, and they also seem to be falling apart as the song goes on. In the same way that every lyric is chosen carefully for how they sound (“Hobnobs! Hobnobs!”), the music feels like a mosaic, carefully picking between instrumentation and silence. Honestly, I think Barton might be some kind of genius in how well he uses silence and space in his music.

Once Around The Lake is very sad and very sweet. It’s a song about the mundane beauty of feeding the ducks (“once around the lake, big ducks on the make, soz you’re out of luck ducks coz bread is bad for ducks”). Who else bothers putting this stuff to music? Who else remembers these otherwise lost moments? At this point I’m not so much charmed by this record as actually very moved by it. Jane manages to interpret lines like “down here’s a breeze that twists about my naked legs like some cat that’s intent on getting back to my bedsit and making it his” in Walking Back From Town and make it both funny and sad at the same time.

My favourite moment on this is in He’s Not Arsed. “This bath water’s cooled down too. Hey, what on Earth are you doing up there? Hurry up – you know I want the water after you.” I don’t know if your parents shared the bath water to save money, but mine did and it’s one of those memories that I find really bittersweet and complex as an adult. We’re used to songs that evoke clichés to talk about the cooling down of relationships, but this song focuses on how everyday life just turns the exotic into routine. It’s a very sad song but it’s lyrically very funny – the final verse is particularly a doozy – and I can’t help but think Philip Larkin would have approved.

And we end on Moon, a song I think is written as the bookend to It’s A Fine Day. Another a cappella piece that seems to bring together the themes the album has been kicking about into one incredibly simple and beautiful song. Jane’s singing is beautiful here, with a real ache to her vocals, an ache about how to express all the ideas Barton has written for her and us. By the time Jane starts vocalising the “da da da da” melody like she did on It’s A Fine Day, I’m so incredibly moved I’m beginning to think this album might become one of my all-time favourites. It’s a gorgeous little song. It’s a gorgeous album. It’s strange and daft and beautiful and tender and human and… just a really lovely record. It might just be a masterpiece and I’m so happy we’re able to hear it. It’s a joy.

❉ ‘Jane And Barton: Too’ (Cherry Red Records CDBRED853) released 6 August 2021, RRP £10.95.  Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records. Listen to the album here: https://cherryred.co/JaneBartonToo

 Cherry Red Records have been releasing and reissuing the most innovative and independent thinking music since 1978. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

❉ Chris Browning is a librarian but writes and draws comics and other strange things to keep himself out of trouble: he can be found on Twitter as @commonswings but be warned he does spend a lot of time posting photos of his cats.

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