'Music In Mouth' is the new album from Dublin-based quartet Bell X1. The band are Paul Noonan, Brian Crosby, David Geraghty and Dominic Phillips, who have made music together in many guises since the early 90s. The album was recorded over the course of 2002 in a series of locations from Ridge Farm Studios in Surrey and The Fallout Shelter in London, to various houses in Dublin, Kilkenny and London.
Even a cursory listen to 'Music In Mouth' reveals a wealth of warmth and humour. From drunken first kisses to dead poet's muses, the songs are served up with real feeling. These are love songs that rearrange the emotional furniture, revealing a bittersweet heart, where Biblical references and childhood board games rub shoulders with sensual lyrics, and vivid imagery develops like a treasured photograph.
The band take their name from the first aircraft to break the sound barrier, piloted by Chuck Yeager - as documented in Tom Wolfe's famous book The Right Stuff, and the movie that ensued. "I love that clean-cut but sinister spirit of the age of discovery that you find in America in the 1960s," says Noonan, who provides vocals, guitars, drums and assorted other noises. Whatever the origins, that same sonic spirit and expert dynamic fits Bell X1.
As Noonan points out: "The record is one of love songs, yeah, but kind of in drag, meaning we've tried to put an angle or a quirk into them. It's a very personal record partly inspired by losing someone close, but trying not to wallow in the experience. We wanted to make a joyful record, one that celebrates people in our lives, or those who have wandered through and beyond."
The themes then are universal - friendship, love and loss - but they're delivered in a way that is anything but maudlin. In fact, most of the songs are uplifting at their core. Bell X1 started the song writing in a house in Wexford, listening to a lot of Talking Heads, Television and Blondie in the interim. "Skinny white boy music" laughs Noonan. Maybe, but the results are far from derivative. If you had a mind to play parlour games you could add in echoes of sixties sounds from the Byrds and Steve Miller; even so you won't find Bell X1 stuck down any retro foxhole.
"The ability to make banality seem joyful is a great skill," adds Noonan, using the Heads song 'Heaven' (from Fear of Music) as a touchstone. "We've always found it harder to do joy than sadness, but if you can communicate some of that 'what-ails-ye' feel while sounding kind of happy it becomes much more potent."
While they hardly fit into the so-called New Irish movement - "is there such a thing?" - Bell X1 are aware of a new optimism abroad in their homeland.
"There used to be a lot of bitching in Dublin, and I used to find the band scene intimidating. But that's finally gone," says Noonan. "There's an awareness of the mechanisms of recording and releasing your own records, which I think you can call a new independence. People like the Frames, Damien Rice, The Jimmy Cake and The Tycho Brahe, while making very different music, have taken the cottage industry approach and that has become a very viable way of doing it . "
The band have cut their teeth on the immediate live circuit in Ireland. More recently Noonan and Geraghty have tested out the new songs in an acoustic environment. "Obviously live we're a lot noisier and more rattly, we put the foot down," Noonan smiles. "Even so I think the best songs are the quieter ones and the trick is to be able to keep people's attention."
While they're not overly keen to blow their own collective trumpet it is certainly true that repeated playing of 'Music In Mouth' reveals its depths. Whether that's in the ingenious central idea of opening track 'Snakes and Snakes' (there are no ladders), or the equally satisfying picture that 'I'll see Your Heart and Raise You Mine' conjures; whether it's the way the banjo sounds like an eastern instrument in 'Alphabet Soup', the simple elegiac qualities and atmosphere of 'Bound for Boston Hill', or the neo-folk jug band eroticism and exuberance in 'West of her Spine', these are songs that stick around and make their presence welcome. Add Noonan's addictive vocals to a mix that makes careful use of vibraphone, bells and understated strings and you've got a totally accomplished record. An achievement to be proud of, whichever way you cut it.
'Music In Mouth' was recorded by Jamie Cullum (Tom McRae, Perry Blake). Notable guests on the record include Olli Kraus (Beth Orton) on cello and Margaret White (Sparklehorse) on vocals and violin.
Bell X1's debut album 'Neither Am I' was released in Ireland in October 2000. Since then they have built up a loyal following, released a couple of well received singles, played some great gigs, indulged in some extra-curricular activities (Paul drummed and sang on Gemma Hayes' 'Night On My Side', while Brian toured with Mundy) and written the songs that make up 'Music In Mouth'. The title for the album comes from the poem, The Planter's Daughter by Austin Clarke:
When night stirred at sea/And the fire brought a crowd in/They say that her beauty/Was music in mouth.