Where the Days Go by July Skies (Review)

Where The Days Go’s most interesting tracks are those that let a little noise scuff up July Skies’ burnished sound a bit.
Where the Days Go, July Skies

I first encountered the music of Antony Harding (who is July Skies) when I picked up Dreaming of Spires several year ago on a whim, probably because I was looking for music that sounded like Slowdive. While Harding’s influences were almost shamefully apparent — a little Durutti Column here, a little Cocteau Twins there, and yes, a whole lot of gauzy Slowdive atmospherica everywhere — the almost singular mood in the songs, the way they practically dripped with nostalgia and reminiscing, instantly drew me in.

A legitimate criticism of Harding’s music would be that it’s all very similar, that he rarely ventures beyond drifting, effects-laden guitars chiming out simple, layered melodies and fey, breathy vocals pining away in the distance over gray autumn days, walks down forest paths, old pictures, WW1 pilots, and other such ephemeral things. A more cynical mind might be tempted to chuckle at Harding’s almost reckless dive into yesteryear, at the music’s overwrought fixation on the past (or, as he puts it on the band’s MySpace page, “abandoned airfields, endless childhood summers, dappled sunlight through leaves… the romance of the heavens well after closing time… [and] dreams of 50’s suburbia”).

But I suppose I approach July Skies the way I approach a band like The Clientele. Namely, that such artists so fully embrace the cliches inherent to their music, so fully embrace the overwroughtness, that what should probably become hackneyed and even saccharine attains a certain integrity. They push so hard that everything gets turned inside out; the cliches seem fresh again, the overwroughtness becomes affecting, even heartbreaking. Then again, I tend to be overly nostalgic anyways, so your mileage may vary.

If nothing else, the music is just pleasant and comfortable, the way a blanket on a cold December morning can seem like the most essential thing in the world, or how the smell of old newspapers brings about feelings of security and stability. (Oh listen to me, waxing all nostalgic and longingly again. Harding, look what you’ve reduced me to!)

Where the Days Go: A Collection Of Musical Compositions certainly does nothing to dispel the nostalgic languor about July Skies’ music. If anything, being a collection of old recordings, b-sides, live performances, and outtakes only enhances the nostalgia. After all, we’re listening to ruminations from July Skies’ slice of the past, all of which are ruminations on Harding’s (idyllic) view of the past. It’s double the nostalgia!

Although the release isn’t exactly in chronological order, the first half roughly corresponds to the time period leading up to and immediately surrounding July Skies’ first release, 2002’s Dreaming of Spires. The disc opens with a re-recording of “Coastal Stations” that doesn’t deviate too much from the original. But as the song continues, a lovely guitar fragment begins curving high overhead, spreading above the song like contrails across a blue autumn sky. A little thing to be sure, but it lends the already wispy song an even more fragile, haunting form.

Some of the tracks here, such as “The Softest Kisses” and “Southern Orchards,” were originally recorded back in 1999 for the At The Height Of Summer 7″ (Roisin Recordings). These earlier versions are quite similar to the album versions, making it clear that Harding established his sound early on, and has faithfully abided to it ever since.

But some halting steps can also be heard in the early tracks that appear later in the album. “Wiltshire Days And Skies” is an extremely ambient piece, even by July Skies’ standards. A few stray guitar notes lend some structure, but the vast majority of the song is pure drift composed of layers of Harding’s wordless vocals. And “You Take Me Through The Day“ s fuzzy drones would certainly make Amp and Windy & Carl plenty proud. Both songs are lovely enough, but don’t have the same sense of economy or balance of melody and atmospherics found in July Skies’ strongest material.

Where the Days Go’s most interesting tracks are those that let a little noise scuff up July Skies’ burnished sound a bit. The slightest hint of tape hiss floating about “Berkswell” is reminiscent of Flying Saucer Attack’s rural phase, where David Pearce imagined twilit pastures caught in perpetual autumn and littered with crumbling, ivy-shrouded farmhouses.

The frequent collaborators in Epic45 also bring some noise to the table in their “reworkings.” “August Country Fires” becomes a piece of pure, fuzz-laden drone, with only a hint of the song’s original elements left intact, while “Waiting To Land” is turned into a piece of forlorn, Pan American-esque dub set at dusk, with bits of lonely glitch circling about the periphery. Both tracks are more abstract and “out there” than anything Harding might do on his own, but they bring out the noisier elements that are hinted at in his music, and to interesting effect.

I often wonder how such atmospheric-minded outfits like July Skies, whose sound is so dependant on dreamy, effects-laden soundscapes, will do in a live setting, which is considerably rougher and rawer. As it turns out, July Skies does so admirably, at least on the live recording of “Coastal Stations” that closes out the disc. Aided by Perry McDonagh, the song is surprisingly true to the studio version, with plenty of graceful atmosphere to spare.

Chances are, if you already own both of July Skies’ releases, Where the Days Go is already winding its way to your mailbox. Those not quite so convinced, who maybe find the music pleasant and are content to leave it that, will probably want to save their cash for July Skies’ new album, The Weather Clock (coming out later in 2006). And those who have never heard the band before, but are intrigued, would probably do better starting with Dreaming of Spires and going from there.

There’s nothing essential on Where the Days Go, especially if you’re looking for something completely new from Harding (though those Epic45 reworkings hint at some intriguing possibilities). There’s also nothing that breaks the fervent, heartaching focus on the things from days long gone, or does away with the ghosts of dead airmen and lost kisses that inhabit Harding’s sound. If that’s your cup of tea, then it probably won’t matter that you’ll get the feeling you’ve heard much of this before; you’ll probably realize that you don’t really want to hear anything else anyways.

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