Shetland Life Music: More from the machine

Malachy Tallack recommends the new release from one of Shetland’s most promising and talented contemporary acts, Little Green Machine.

The music business confuses me greatly. To call it fickle would be an understatement; perverted might be more accurate. It is a constant source of bafflement to see bands displaying barely a scrap of talent become astonishingly successful, while others, positively brimming with ability, slog away on the sidelines, never quite achieving the success they deserve.

Into this latter category must fall Little Green Machine, the Edinburgh-based group, two of whose three members hail from these very isles.

Little Green Machine (or LGM, as they are more conveniently typed) have been on the go for around two and a half years now, and in that time have proved themselves worthy of any amount of praise. Singer and bass player Jack Sandison is a superb front man and excellent songwriter, and fellow islander Arthur Nicolson is a truly gifted guitar player. Together with the strong, imaginative drumming of Cat Myers, they are the producers of high-energy, intelligent and exceedingly catchy songs.

In their fairly short lifetime, the group have built up an impressive following, and have just released their second E.P., What You’re Looking For. Their talents have also been noticed by a number of influential reviewers and commentators, who have lavished them with compliments. Last year, the Daily Record described a song from the band’s first E.P., as “possibly the best track released by a Scots band signed or unsigned this year.”

But all this attention has not yet led where, I suspect, the band are hoping it will. While fellow Shetlanders Black Bic Biro (now known as Oscar Charlie) were whisked away, wined, dined and shined by industry lawyers after only a handful of gigs, LGM have continued with the tiring but enjoyable business of playing real songs to real people.

I have been wondering why this might be – why a band with so much talent and potential have not been leapt upon by a record company – and I have to say that I’m not sure. Everything appears to be in place with LGM: talent, catchiness, style, good looks. So what’s wrong?

One of the problems, perhaps, is roots. Generally the music industry is depressingly keen on acts that are blatantly derivative, usually of music that is just a little older than the audience it is being aimed at, to help maintain the illusion of originality. It should also sound similar enough to other contemporary acts to create the impression of some kind of “scene”, with which the audience can identify themselves. But the essence of songwriting, and of musicianship, is a kind of rootedness, an organic connection that is about influence and connection, not about derivation. And LGM have this in bucket loads.

The band doesn’t sound like anybody else, but their influences are there to be heard – alive within the music. The sly Dylan references within Sandison’s lyrics, the subtle twists in Nicolson’s guitar lines, each suggest a band that is familiar with a wide range of musical styles and directions, and provides a depth to the songs that is missing from so many of their contemporaries. Perhaps that’s a bit much for the lawyers.

Fans of the band know better though, and What You’re Looking For has been impatiently awaited by many, despite coming less than a year after its eponymous predecessor.

For some, perhaps, it will be disappointing to be offered only four new songs, and certainly EPs are not the most satisfying of formats. While their first release, with eight tracks, was almost, almost an album, this one most definitely isn’t. But it’s rather unfair to criticise a band for what they haven’t released rather than what they have; and that, on the strength of the material here, leaves almost nothing to criticise at all.

What You’re Looking For opens with the track of the same name, and it thunders out of the stereo as it starts, with big drums, feedback, then raging guitar. “Where is your haven? Where is your Rome?” begins Sandison. “You could walk to the ends of the earth and never find home”. It’s a weary, angst-ridden tone that continues throughout the verses, but which is counterbalanced by the oddly positive sentiment of the chorus: “Hold on to what you love / You should hold on to what you love”. It’s a simple statement, but in a song like this it is unusual and refreshing, and prevents the bleakness from becoming overpowering or clichéd. Many songwriters would revel and wallow in the gloom of it all, but this one offers advice. The music, too, lifts the mood, with an almost joyous burst of energy as it reaches the chorus. It’s a perfect single.

In some ways, “Take Me By The Hand”, the second track, plays with the same sense of contradiction. This time it is the guitar, bright and clean, that provides the warmth, while the lyrics again offer something darker, more melancholic. There is a sense of homesickness or disconnection running through the song, and this time the chorus serves to underline the mood: “It’s a terrible thing when you don’t know what you’re doing / It’s a terrible thing when you don’t know what you’ve done”. Sandison knows how to write a great chorus: simple and singable, with good, solid harmonies.

The disconnection of tone here is added to by a general disconnectedness in the imagery of the lyrics, moving unsteadily through the song without any sense of advancement or plot. The singer’s plea for someone to “Take me by the hand, and walk me down the path” also expresses this need for direction, for somewhere to go. “I long to be back home” he sings. It is perhaps the oldest, most durable theme in a songwriter’s book.

As a songwriter, Jack Sandison seems to be an all-rounder, and the quality of writing continues over the CD’s other two tracks: “Honeybee” and “Jelly Baby”. In his pursuit of melody there is no sense of lyrical compromise; nor, in his lyrics, is there ever a forgetfulness of the need for energy and involvement. On their first E.P. the band did a superb job of translating Sandison’s songs into their own sound. Here, on What You’re Looking For, they have gone further. These four songs sound like the product of an intense collaboration between the musicians. The time spent playing and performing together shows in the maturity, imagination and closeness of the musicianship.

Overall, this collection is not a big leap forward from the last; it follows too soon after to be that. Nor is it, as far as this listener is concerned, discernibly better than the previous E.P. It doesn’t really need to be. Both Little Green Machine and What You’re Looking For display a tremendously skilled band with excellent songs. Indeed, the two EPs put together would make a very good album.

Little Green Machine have everything they require to make bigger success a reality. They certainly deserve it. What they need now, I suspect, is simply luck.

Malachy Tallack


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