Previously, I’ve written several articles for this blog about Scottish bands, including articles on the Cocteau Twins, Primal Scream, Belle and Sebastian, John Martyn, Love and Money, Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, Teenage Fanclub and Bloomsday. The last band, Bloomsday, featured the lead singer of the band I’m going to write about today, Chris Thomson. Bloomsday was a side project he was involved with two former members of Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, while on a break from his “day job” as lead singer of The Bathers. In this article, I’ll tell you about the band’s history and their wonderful album Sunpowder from 1995.
The Bathers were formed in Glasgow in 1985. They formed after Chris Thomson’s previous group Friends Again split up. Initially, the group were a vehicle for Chris Thomson, a singer-songwriter. In 1987, The Bathers secured their first record deal with Go! Discs Records. The deal was secured primarily by Thomson, and the resulting album was Unusual Places To Die. This was released in 1987. Due to problems with internal politics at the record company, the album wasn’t as successful as it deserved to be.
After these problems, the group switched labels. This time they signed to Island Records. They released one album on Island, Sweet Deceit, one of the group’s best album. Like its predecessor, the album failed to achieve the commercial success it deserved. It was at this time, that Thomson recorded the Bloomsday album Fortuny with former members of Lloyd Cole and the Commotions Stephen Irvine and Neil Clark.
A more fruitful period was round the corner for The Bathers. After signing a record contract with a German record label Marina, the group released three albums in a four year period. In 1993, they released Lagoon Blues and in 1995 they released Sunpowder, the album this article is about. Their third album in this trio of releases was Kelvingrove Baby. All of these albums are highly rated, and were released to critical acclaim, but one of the most popular was Kelvingrove Baby. During this period new members joined the band. Hazel Morrison played percussion, string players and arrangers Ian White on viola and violin and Mark Wilson, and keyboard player Carlo Scattini all came on board. This would change the group’s sound greatly. Many people call this the classic lineup of the band.
Although the group had always got on well with their label Marina, they decided that it would be easier working with a label that was closer to their Glasgow base. The Bathers left Marina Records and signed a recording contract with Wrasse Records. Since signing that contract, they have only released one album, in 2001, Pandemonia. Pandemonia is a musical masterpiece, not just the band’s best album, but one of the best albums released by a Scottish band in the last ten years. It’s an album that I have written about before in a previous article. The only other album released on Wrass is a compilation of the group’s best songs, entitled Desire Regained. Since then, the band have not released any new material. A new album is rumored to be in the offing. It would feature most of the musicians who played on the band’s earlier albums released in between 1993 and 1997. However, nothing has happened, fans and critics wait with baited breath, to hear the first new material they’ve released since 2001.
Having told you about The Bathers history, I’ll now tell you why Sunpowder is such a wonderful album. Sunpowder begins Danger In Love, a song about falling in love again. Danger In Love begins with thunder rolling, then an organ plays in the distance. The sound is dramatic, people speak, the organ sounds dark and moody. Then the mood changes, a piano plays softly, meandering gently, against a background of strings. When Chris Thomson sings his voice is full of emotion. He articulates, the lyrics with feeling, a sadness in his voice. Strings sweep in and out of the track, accompanying the piano and Liz Fraser’s ethereal backing vocals make this an emotional and beautiful track, one that track has been beautifully arranged.
The Dutch Venus continues the downtempo feel of the album Like Danger In Love, this track benefits from a gorgeous string arrangement, accompanied by a piano. When you hear the opening bars of the song, the mood is set. There is tinge of sadness present straight away. This is reinforced when Thomson sings the lyrics. He sings of lost love, someone he loved, then lost, a love affair gone wrong. Like many of the group’s songs it’s set in Glasgow, he name-checks Kelvingrove in west end of the City. When Chris Thomson sings the vocal, the effect is powerful, it’s as if the song is personal, as if it means something to him. The arrangement is understated, just piano, strings and Thomson singing, accompanied by Liz Fraser. Her voice is a perfect foil for Thomson, her’s is light and bright, his sad and moody. It’s a wonderful track, one of the album’s highlights, one you’ll love when you hear it.
Angel On Ruskin has a hesitant slightly start, a guitar is gently strummed, drums play, and you wonder where the track is heading. When Thomson sings, he gives the track direction. He’s joined by Liz Frazer, her backing vocals crystalline, a thing of beauty. She almost steals the show on the track. On this track the drums are more prominent than on the first two tracks. Thomson and Fraser sing the track beautifully, Fraser filling in the spaces left by Thomson in the vocal. The lyrics on this track are about being captivated by a woman’s beauty, and being enthralled by her. Here, Thomson’s lyrics have the same quality and power as good poetry. They affect how we feel, we empathize with characters involved and live the drama. I’ve always loved this song, and will never, ever, tired of hearing it.
Like many of the tracks on Sunpowder, the arrangements are beautifully understated. If anything, this adds to the dramatic affect of the music. On this track, Delft, a piano plays at the start of the track. Space is left, allowing the music to breath, and adding to the drama. When Thomson sings, his vocal is slow, full of character. He too, leaves plenty of space in his vocal. Two violins, and Thomson on piano are all the instruments used on this track. This is highly effective, and this subdued and understated arrangement suit the track perfectly, as it’s another sad love song. It’s about loving someone from afar, but they’re just out of reach, and will never be part of your life.
Weem Rock Muse starts with a guitar strumming, and Thomson singing. His voice sounds lighter, as if some of the worries have been removed from his shoulders. He sounds happier as he sings the lyrics. The vocal is accompanied by a hammond organ playing subtly in the background. As the track progresses, Thomson’s voice gets stronger, he’s joined by a harmonica, that meanders in and out the track. This adds to the soulfulness of the track. Again, the lyrics are set in Scotland, and again they’re about love. Like all of Thomson’s lyrics, they’ve a strong narrative and are thoughtful and intelligent. One problem with reviewing such a good album, is that you run out of superlatives describing each track. So I’ll just use one to describe this track. Brilliant.
On the next track, Faithless Thomson’s voice is moody, there’s a sadness present as he sings the lyrics. The song is very much a slow burner, it has a long meandering introduction, one that sets the atmosphere. When he sings, he takes on a familiar role, that of troubled troubadour. It’s a role he has the perfect voice for. His delivery is heartfelt, it’s a voice bathed in pathos. Towards the end of the track, he half-sings, half-speaks the lyrics, which really drives home their sadness. Faithless is another mini-masterpiece from The Bathers that tugs at your heartstrings.
For the first time on Sunpowder, the tempo increases on She’s Gone Forever, one of the album’s best tracks. It’ a track that deceives, because it sounds an uptempo track, but is one with sad lyrics, lyrics is about losing someone you love, a relationship breaking up. Thomson’s lyrics are some of his best, he is one of the finest lyricists you’ll come across. Also different is he arrangement, it’s much fuller, features more instruments. Another guest artist is James Grant of Love and Money. He plays acoustic guitar and sings backing vocals on the track.
The more uptempo style continues on Send Me Your Halo. It starts with an acoustic guitar playing, then Chris Thomson sings. He’s accompanied by strings playing gently, behind him. His vocal is much lighter during this track. When he sings, it’s as if the lyrics bring back pleasant memories. They’re about falling hopelessly in love, being swept off your feet and tell of a summer long love affair. This track shows a different side to The Bathers, a side we don’t see much of on this album, but it’s one I wouldn’t mind seeing again, as Send Me Your Halo is a standout track.
For Saskia begins with only a piano playing, setting the mood. When Thomson sings, the troubled troubadour enters stage left again, ready to take the spotlight. It’s just Thomson, backed by the piano, sadness seeping out his very pore. Again, the subject is about love lost, and he’s left with merely a memory, a memory he can only recreate in a song, or that appears in his dreams. It’s a memorable song, one that you’ll remember, one where you share his pain and hurt.
Strings sweep at the start of The Night Is Young, the song has an almost classical feel and sound at the start. The understated string arrangement sets the tone for what follows. It’s a romantic song, one where the cadence of Thomson’s voice helps get across, the beauty of the lyrics. Liz Fraser sings backing vocals, her voice angelic, soaring and falling, its ethereal quality almost otherworldly, so perfect it is. Their voices are like light and shade, but are a match made in heaven. They combine perfectly, to produce one of the most beautiful and heartfelt songs on Sunpowder.
The album ends with the Sunpowder, a lovely instrumental track. A piano and violin play, immediately you feel melancholy. Welcome to The Bathers world, a world you’ve privileged to visit. It’s a lovely way to end this album, one of the best albums to be made by a Scottish band in the last thirty years.
Sunpowder is one of The Bathers best albums. It’s a mini-masterpiece, full of beautiful songs. These song are full thoughtful and intelligent lyrics, which demonstrate Chris Thomson’s talent as a songwriter. They’re like poetry set to music. It would be unfair to credit Thomson alone for making this such a special album. Credit must be given to the other members of the band. This, to me, was the classic lineup of The Bathers. The lineup was augmented by two special guests, James Grant and Liz Fraser. Fraser played a huge part, contributing some wonderful backing vocals to several tracks.
After spending some time preparing and writing this article, I listened to Sunpowder many times. Each time I listened to the album, I wondered why such a fantastic album wasn’t more successful. It truly saddens me that The Bathers haven’t gone on to become a hugely successful band, with a much wider fan-base. Hopefully, after reading this article, you too, will want to hear this album, and other albums by The Bathers. If you do, you can look forward to hearing some sublime music, music that you’ll fall in love with, and never tire of hearing. Standout Tracks: Danger In Love, The Dutch Venus, She’s Gone Forever and Send Me Your Halo.