Cover design for International Textiles titled "Lady in Red Dress" by Rene Gruau, 1956
Fans of Bobby Wratten, frontman of UK indie bands the Field Mice and Trembling Blue Stars, know that he had a short-lived third project between those two well-known bands. It was called Northern Picture Library, and it's generally known for being a difficult in-between phase for Wratten, in which he explored some different sounds and approaches to his music. I'm only lukewarm on the later Field Mice stuff, but I was intrigued by things I'd heard about Northern Picture Library. And I was feeling adventurous, so I picked up 1993's Alaska, the band's only album. Guess what? It's just as confounding and weird as I thought it might be.
My biggest issue with Alaska is the way it's structured - there are hardly any vocals tracks in the album's first half, for one thing. You get a few lines of recognizable lyrics toward the end of the album's third track, the seven-minute languorous, acoustic "Catholic Easter Colours". The first real pop song you get is the fifth track, "Insecure", and it's a gauzy, insubstantial thing that nevertheless has a certain loveliness to it. It's sung by Annemari Davies, who handles most of the vocals in the album's abstract first half with her airy coos and sighs. Oddly, the second half of the album is much more grounded, with Bobby Wratten taking over the lead vocals and singing some pretty direct and lyrical songs like "Truly Madly Deeply" and "Of Traffic and the Ticking".
I actually quite like some of the less pop-oriented material on Alaska - I just think it would work better if it were interspersed with the other stuff. I have trouble with albums that start out doing one thing and then switching to another thing entirely halfway through - David Bowie's Low is a good example of a much-loved album that irritates me in this way. My favorite thing on Alaska, actually, is the "Love Song for the Dead Che" single that has been appended to the reissue. I'm a big fan of the original song by the '60s psych-rock band United States of America, and Northern Picture Library does two versions of the song, one that's transformative (titled "Love Song for the Dead Che #1"), and another that's interpretive ("#2").
"Love Song for the Dead Che #2" by Northern Picture Library