Anna Meredith came to my attention when she won the SAY – Scottish Album of the Year – for 2016 in the summer, beating the likes of Young Fathers, Steve Mason, Emma Pollock, and FFS. I didn’t know her name, but I did recognise the artwork for Varmints, and the description – classical composer makes debut pop/electronic album – made it sound right up my street.
It starts with “Nautilus”, an enormous, instrumental, Steve-Reich-like horn loop that never fails to get Nora dancing (she’s been known to point at the hi-fi and say “music”, and then get huffy if anything but this album gets put on). It’s not pop music, per se, and not quite dance or electronic either, but it is catchy, and it does make you move. As someone on ILM described it, it is “focused and amazing-sounding”. And it really is; the resonances of the horns and reverberations of the drums are monolithic and cavernous and loaded with detail.
Every single second of Varmints has something interesting going on sonically and/or compositionally; there’s a real feeling of musical depth and richness without it feeling complicated for the sake of complication. It’s been said that one of the joys of [pop?] music is how your brain tries to predict what’s going to happen next (and the satisfaction when you either get it right, or something beautifully unexpected happens), and Meredith surfs that line between comfortable, reassuring predictability and interesting, confounding unpredictability with expert poise.
At first Varmints almost felt too… positive? Too major-key? As if there was no real edge or dissonance to it. But a; that’s not actually true, as there are numerous frenetic / angry / charged / sad moments, and b; even if it was, I’m not sure that’s necessarily a bad thing. “Taken”, the second track and a single that’s found loads of airplay on 6music, definitely felt a touch too… something… in its male-female harmony vocals the first few times I played it (“Taken sounds like Nirvana’s Lithium as performed by an am-dram society” read another ILM comment), but the slashing guitars, tightly-wound synth loops, and odd rhythmic changes, as well as those hard-to-ignore vocals, have seeped into my cerebellum over the months to the point where I now thoroughly enjoy it.
About half the tracks are instrumental, and the album mixes up synthetic elements with cello, drums, clarinet, guitars, and many more different live instruments. The tone shifts massively from track to track; “Something Helpful” is delicate and yearning, but “R-Type” is almost violently repetitive and machine-like, and “Dowager” is tinged with sadness through both the arrangement and the lyrics, while “Blackfriers” is essentially beautiful, plaintive ambient music.
Meredith herself was born in London but moved to Scotland aged two, and has various compositional awards, a Masters from the Royal College of Music, and composer-in-residences on her CV. She’s also released a pair of EPs, Black Prince Fury and Jet Black Rider from 2012 and 2013 respectively, from which “Nautilus”, originally from Black Prince Fury, is the only track to feature on Varmints. Each EP has a rather surprising and surreptitious cover version hidden on it, by the way…
Rob listened: I really want to like ‘Varmints’ a lot. When Nick first played it, ‘Nautilus’ struck me straight away. It does that wonderful, heady thing of starting in one rhythmic groove and then, almost imperceptibly, seeming to shift into a completely different mode. It’s a delicious magic trick, which works as a set-up to a barnstorming tour de force. And then I find myself drifting off. So far, after the opener, I’ve found ‘Varmints’ an easy record to leave. I’m being lazy, I know. I came back to it last year after the reports I heard from SXSW all agreed that Anna Meridith had been the best live act at the festival, with superlatives dripping from every description. And the same thing happened again. Now, having somehow waited 18 months to write this response… it’s time I tried again.