Jonathan Bree: A Little Night Music - review

As the head of Lil’ Chief, the autonomous record label, Jonathan Bree gets to wave his curatorial wand over the singular aesthetic output of an institution that continues to thrive, despite its determinedly cottage-business model.

His former group, The Brunettes, rode a spike in the popularity of light 1960s pop at a time a few years back when indie rockers got down with twee bubblegum pop, lashings of irony inclusive. It could be powerfully irritating.

But both Bree and his partner, Princess Chelsea (whose The Great Cybernetic Depression I raved about in August), have taken a welcome turn towards the dark side. It’s not that A Little Night Music lacks for light moments, but his second solo album cunningly places the best lines in a moody or even glum (bubbleglum?) context.

From the crooned vocals to the orchestral backdrops, Bree steps up his indebtedness to the likes of Lee Hazlewood (with whom he shares a tendency to unleash unexpectedly withering lines) and Scott Walker (whose absinthe-soaked orchestrations are scaled down to fit this less-grandiose perspective).

Rejecting the standard rock palette without opting for R&B grooves is a brave move, and it works. A Little Night Music is a semi-orchestral album on a very low budget, but despite its acknowledged debt to Bree’s bingeing on Tchaikovsky and Bartók, the orchestrations sound like something a bunch of genius five-year-olds might put together: a toy orchestra full of xylophones and what sounds like crudely sampled opera and violin steals that turn out to be real people playing real instruments. Go figure.



This may read like a criticism, but really, it’s not. Part of the charm of this concoction (and the Lil’ Chief aesthetic) is its small-scale bedroom-recording style, which lends an intimacy and a human dimension large-scale works can’t replicate.

His songs are slight little things, and that’s not a criticism either, because a piece of art can be slight and perfect at the same time. A chap brushes his teeth and goes to bed; he imagines the countless “Drones & Satellites” up in the night sky (and the sense of unease that implies); he takes a pot-shot at the mental imbalance of some guy who’s into “Weird Hardcore”: “You wouldn’t feel half as tragic if you just saw some sun/And wouldn’t feel like such a freak if you smoked less pot.”

Despite interludes of what sounds like a Cypriot travelogue in the 1960s, it’s the increased sense of moral indignation that gives the album its spine. On the last song, “There Is Sadness”, Bree lambastes a woman for her unerring superficiality in the face of a world in crisis: “Dying babies in Africa/Your coffee is not quite hot enough/Dying babies in Africa/You might never be a star.” I like that.