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Clogs

The Creatures in the Garden of Lady Walton

Rating: 4.0/5.0

Label: Brassland

From the moment Padma Newsome and Shara Worden engage in a nearly divine vocal round on opener “Cocodrillo,” it’s clear that listeners are in store for an exquisite musical journey on The Creatures in the Garden of Lady Walton. It’s been four years since Clogs – Newsome, his National bandmate Bryce Dessner, Rachael Elliott and Thomas Kozumplik – last graced our ears with a full LP, but their latest effort proves that it’s been well worth the wait. Like the group’s previous releases, this album may not have the teeth to appeal to all fans – music with an overt classical/electro-acoustic bent may always be a tough sell for some – but for listeners who have the ear and the temperament for a 10-song cycle that is, for lack of a better term, pretty goddamn beautiful, this record proves increasingly rewarding with each listen.

The garden itself refers to La Mortella – the idyllic botanical paradise on the island of Ischia created by Lady Walton, the widow of composer Sir William Walton – but don’t let the highbrow premise trick you into thinking Creatures can only be appreciated by a trained classicist. Intelligent without ever approaching snobby or coming off like some formulaic New Age compilation, this is mood music at its most unpretentious. It also marks a change in direction for the band. Abandoning his previous modus operandi of relying on a largely instrumental fusion of violins, percussions, guitars and bassoons, mastermind composer Newsome employs an array of guest vocalists this time around, including Worden, Matt Berninger and Sufjan Stevens.
Unsurprisingly, there’s not an imperfect voice to be heard.

After “Cocodrillo,” the band returns to familiar ground with instrumental “I Used to Do,” but the record’s first truly galvanizing track comes courtesy of Worden’s operatic approach to “On the Edge.” Newsome takes the lead on indie-folk hybrid “Red Seas,” summoning a sensation of consciousness-meets-dreaming, Worden soars again on both “The Owl of Love” and “Adages of Cleansing,” while Berninger’s throaty baritone lends an especially elegiac touch to “Last Song.” The mostly instrumental “To Hugo” showcases the orchestral chamber-pop leanings that characterized Clogs’ first four records and the violin-driven “Raise the Flag” plays out like music for consecrated grounds, before Stevens offers yet another divergent vocal style on closer “We Were Here.” The end of the cycle feels like awakening from a sweet dream; don’t be surprised to find yourself starting it over again at this point.

Like the musical arrangements, the sparse and often repeated lyrical meditations elicit visions of a mystical Shangri-la. “If this was our last song/ What would we do then?” Berninger ponders on “Last Song,” and you get the feeling throughout the cycle that the creatures of the garden never want to leave their little dreamland. And why would they? The music that defines the garden is far from the sounds of this world. If heaven has a soundtrack, this may be it. Take a walk in this garden. Smell the roses. It’s worth it.

by Marcus David

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