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Trembling Blue Stars \ Biography

Notes on the notes by Michael Hill

Her Handwriting (1996)
Although plenty of musical and personal history had preceded it, Her Handwriting appeared in the spring of 1996 as if out of nowhere. This heartbreaking missive, full of longing and regret, was cast into record shops like a message in a bottle from some forlorn castaway. This was an album meant to be stumbled across, discovered serendipitously, claimed as one's own secret soundtrack. Its carefully crafted anonymity was part of what made it so tantalizing. The exquisitely simple package offered no photographs, production credits or information about where and when it was made, just a swirl of black and white drawings that seemed primitively symbolic, like something out of a vintage cinematic dream sequence. The band name, taken from a line in The Story of O, Pauline Reage's infamous novel of S&M and erotic obsession, was instantly evocative: "It's perfectly true that eyes can look like stars; hers had resembled trembling blue stars." The moniker hinted somewhat at the nature of the album's contents - the obsessive part, not the S&M. The unfamiliar label name, Shinkansen, also seemed intriguingly exotic, even if a P.O. box in Bristol was listed on the back cover.

The lack of tangible information helped to obscure the fact that there was no band called Trembling Blue Stars at the time, though one would soon have to be put together. Her Handwriting was conceived, written and recorded by singer-songwriter Bobby Wratten, assisted by fellow musician, engineer and friend Ian Catt. Wratten had previously made gorgeous records for the Sarah Records label as front man for adventurous cult stars the Field Mice, then briefly as part of post-Field Mice trio Northern Picture Library. But even his impressively arranged, semi-celebrated efforts up to then did not quite prepare a listener for this astonishingly intimate song cycle. The album might have seemed too painfully personal if it wasn't so utterly alluring to hear; Wratten artfully balanced emotional forthrightness with musical sophistication.

For dedicated followers of Wratten, Her Handwriting was a provocative new chapter in a musical and interpersonal saga that had taken a particularly dramatic turn during the contentious latter days of the Field Mice. Wratten, whose songs explored a constant yearning for romantic perfection and enduring love, had taken up with Field Mice singer Anne Mari Davies just before the band imploded. The pair briefly performed together in Northern Picture Library, along with Mark Dobson, pushing the Field Mice sound into a dreamier, more dub-influenced direction that retained just enough guitar jangle. They were primarily studio artists at that point; Davies suffered from stage fright crippling enough to make live gigs impossible for her. On songs that veered between wistful and hopeful, Wratten and Davies pondered the idea - a very tenuous one - that they may indeed have found a romantic and musical partnership that could last forever. Perhaps by even considering that possibility aloud, it became fated to failure. No sooner had they declared themselves "lucky," then they were no more, as a couple and as a band.

A shattered Wratten set to writing songs on his own in the spring of 1995, intending to release a mini-LP for Sarah. But, as he later told Melody Maker, he was "pretty much a mess" and found himself unable to commit his feelings onto tape after giving it a couple of unsuccessful tries. Wratten has never been less than honest in his writing, and he's always used real life as the starting point for his songs (though all of them, including the material on Her Handwriting, have benefited from the exercise of considerable artistic license.) Saint Etienne engineer Catt, who had befriended Wratten early in his Field Mice career, persuaded Wratten to come to the studio Catt had set up in his parents' home, conveniently located within walking distance of Wratten's own place in Mitcham, Surrey. On Halloween 1995, the pair recorded the version of "Do People Ever?" that would appear on Her Handwriting as well as an initial pass at "Less Than Love," released for the first time as part of this package.

These were encouraging signs for Wratten. Working became cathartic, not debilitating. He was emboldened to write and develop material he had earlier feared he'd not be able to approach in any objective way, examining the circumstances of his breakup from every possible angle. He also revisited two songs, "For This One" and "A London Story," that had been composed while he was still active in Northern Picture Library. Throughout the autumn and winter, an extraordinary record began to take shape. Wratten and Catt toiled on their own; only Field Mice multi-instrumentalist Harvey Williams stopped by to play guitar on "For This One" and "Last Summertime's Obsession." Her Handwriting, the title inspired by a lyric from the Go-Between's "Part Company," would be the premier album release of the Shinkansen label, a new imprint started by indie entrepreneur Matt Haynes after he retired the Sarah name following its 100th release.

In spirit, Wratten had more in common with the great Southern California-based singer-songwriters of the early seventies, in particular Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne, than with any of his English contemporaries. Her Handwriting was confessional songwriting on the order of Mitchell's Blue: so startlingly specific in its narratives that one could practically retrace Bobby and Anne Mari's steps from the lyrical clues contained in a song like "Abba on the Jukebox." Yet, as with Mitchell, Wratten's work didn't feel unduly self-absorbed, just remarkably frank. He made palpable the joys and terrors of falling in - and out - of love. The details made his songs feel more authentic and compelling, familiar to anyone who's ever longed for another, especially someone determined to remain out of reach.

The music itself had more of Browne in it: the stately piano riffs Browne favored, the folk-rock touches, the Late For the Sky-type arrangements that built slowly, carefully, to a heart-wrenching musical and emotional crescendo. For one song title, Wratten even borrowed a fragment of lyric - "the far too simple beauty" - from Browne's own "Sky Blue and Black." It wasn't the first time he'd pointedly referenced the artist. Wratten mentioned Browne's "From Silver Lake" on "And Before The First Kiss," a diary-like recounting of how Bobby and Anne Mari's affair began, from the final Field Mice disc, For Keeps. According to Wratten's lyrics, he and Davies, sharing headphones, had listened to "From Silver Lake" over and over on an airplane taking them from a gig in Tokyo back to London. Repeated exposure to that simple, lovely song is surely reason enough to fall in love.

Wratten's overall sound, however, was in no way retro, no matter how carefully he had transposed a Laurel Canyon sensibility to the south of England. His taste was remarkably broad, embracing everything from Lee Perry's narcotized dub reggae to Kraftwerk's minimalist electronics to the Feelies' hypnotic, guitar-driven take on New York City punk. One could also locate some contemporary reference points in his work: a trace of New Order and R.E.M., a bit of the Smiths, even some Blue Nile. But Wratten was, in his own modest way, years ahead of the curve, advancing the art of do-it-yourself recording with sophisticated ideas about arranging and an eagerness to experiment. A willfully mysterious, modern studio collaboration like The Postal Service's Give Up could be a direct descendent of Her Handwriting.

An edited version of "Abba on the Jukebox," included here, was released as a single in April 1996, with Her Handwriting following a month later. The reviews were the most outstanding of Wratten's career since the Field Mice's landmark "Missing the Moon" was named NME Single of the Week. John Mulvey, in Vox, likened the mood of Her Handwriting to Tracy Thorn's groundbreaking work with Massive Attack, calling it "a record with which to grow old and sad gracefully." In the NME, Mark Sutherland declared, "Wratten's trademark blend of pastoral guitars and lush, Saint Etienne-esque electronics is fine-tuned to near perfection and even the hardest hearts find themselves whispering along to 'What Can I Say To Change Your Heart?'"

As brilliant as the reviews were, Her Handwriting was to remain a succes d'estime, unnoticed by the masses, treasured by a small, passionately devoted audience in the UK and abroad. The instant buzz-building of the internet age hadn't quite begun; news of Wratten's achievement literally had to spread by word of mouth. Which it did, slowly but surely. Wratten, though still uncertain about how far he wanted to take the Trembling Blue Stars concept, was persuaded by Harvey Williams to put together a live band. Williams rejoined his former band-mate on guitar and keyboards; Gemma Townley, from Sarah band Blueboy, would play bass and cello. They first performed on July 2 1996 for a BBC Radio 1 session with Mark Radcliffe, then made their club debut two days later Upstairs at the Garage in Highbury, London. A handful of not-quite-satisfying gigs followed, including a support slot with flavor-of-the-moment Baby Bird.

At Brighton's Steam Inn, for example, Trembling Blue Stars were at the top of a mid-summer Sunday evening bill, but had barely gotten midway through their set when closing time arrived. The band hastily loaded out, as if both artist and listener weren't meant to be in the same room when the lights came up. So many confidences had passed between them already; for that moment at least, the transaction felt better in the dark. As the last trains pulled out of Brighton station, it seemed that Trembling Blue Stars might slip away for good, leaving us with just this one extraordinary CD, Her Handwriting - Bobby Wratten's extraordinary act of contrition, a gift to bruised hearts everywhere, offered in hope that they all might mend. Just like his own would, someday.

Lips That Taste Of Tears (1998)

The packaging for Trembling Blue Stars' 1996 debut disc, Her Handwriting, was discreet almost to the point of anonymity; this most intimate of confessions arrived in the plainest of wrappers. Auteur Bobby Wratten reserved the truly arresting imagery for the songs themselves, which described in practically cinematic detail the unraveling of a romance and its prolonged aftermath. It was impossible to take your ears off it: singer-songwriter Wratten teetered between hope and resignation as he recalled better times in flashback fashion. The emotions were often painful, but the sound was ravishing. On tracks that alternated between dream-like electronic soundscapes and crystalline folk rock, Wratten examined his missteps, savored his memories and earnestly plumbed the depths of his sorrow. With his plaintive lyrics, he tried to set things right, admitting with echo-chambered eloquence at album's end, "I'm sorry, so sorry, for everything." One couldn't help wishing alongside him for some sort of happy ending, even if one felt deep down that would never happen. The gorgeous melancholy of Her Handwriting was addictive.

The album was especially compelling to those who had followed Wratten's career from his earlier days as front-man for Sarah Records' flagship act The Field Mice through his brief mid-90s stint in the trio Northern Picture Library to this stealthy solo effort. Hardcore fans were familiar with the backstage drama that had inspired this revelatory new work. In the latter days of the Field Mice, Wratten had embarked on an affair with vocalist Anne Mari Davies. He recounted their tentative beginnings as a couple in the evocative travelogue, "And Before the First Kiss," from the Field Mice's pointedly titled final album For Keeps. Wratten and Davies continued to explore their feelings and seeming good fortune with Northern Picture Library; on the languid, dub-influenced "Lucky," from the album Alaska, Davis pondered a "love you find once and once only/And that is if, if you are lucky. if you are lucky." A year later, their luck ran out.

Her Handwriting memorialized the seeming end of this romantic and artistic union. The sequencing of the tracks formed an understated, disc-length narrative, not exactly a concept album but an elegantly arranged song cycle. Wratten's project was so personal in nature, so emotionally demanding in its writing and physically difficult in its recording, that one sensed Trembling Blue Stars was an ephemeral thing, a one-off effort from a solitary artist, the band's moniker a mellifluous excuse for Wratten not to release an album under his own name.

Emboldened by the critical reception to the album, however, Wratten started to perform live, billed as Trembling Blue Stars and backed by former Field Mice guitarist-keyboard player Harvey Williams and cellist Gemma Townley a Sarah Records label-mate from the band Blue Boy. But the handful of gigs they played around England, including a live session with Mark Radcliffe on BBC Radio 1, were not easy for Wratten. Townley departed in the fall of 1996, following a support slot with Baby Bird at London's 100 Club.Her Handwriting engineer Ian Catt stepped in on electric bass, but only for the last few dates, including a pair with American indie-rockers Low. The trio played a final, troubled set at the Wag Club in Soho. A dissatisfied Wratten gave up on maintaining a live band and contemplated retiring from performing altogether.

Lips That Taste Of Tears, arriving in spring of 1998, was a most unexpected encore, made all the more surprising by Davies' participation, not only as guest vocalist but as album cover girl. Davies' intriguingly impassive sleeve image looked like a candid shot captured by a Technicolor surveillance camera. Her recorded contributions to the album bordered on the otherworldly: angelic wordless harmonies on "All I Never Said," a dark-edged siren's call on "The Rainbow," chilly techno recitative on "Tailspin." At times it seemed as if she were addressing everyone who had ever obsessed over Her Handwriting. On "The Rainbow," released on 7" vinyl and an extended CD single in December 1997, she whispered, "I am the girl from your dreams/You know you know me." The object of Wratten's unrequited affection - who'd become, vicariously, ours as well - had floated out of Wratten's reveries and back into the mix as a flesh-and-blood player. For followers of the events that had led up to Her Handwriting, this seemed like an extraordinary development. Perhaps Wratten's recorded apology had worked.

The truth is, Davies had simply resurfaced in the role she had long played in Wratten's work and life, as his muse. Not only did he write passionately about her, he wrote even more expressively for her: songs that made knowing use of her voice, often as an instrument of mystery, seduction and, of course, potential heartbreak. Wratten had once again composed songs for which no other singer would do; he knew "The Rainbow" belonged to her and she agreed to cut the track, especially since it wasn't intended, like the material on Her Handwriting, as an explicit comment on their past relationship. (An NME reviewer thought he detected a hidden agenda, speculating that Wratten sneaked "a fiercely blushing love letter into some sweetly unsuspecting slinky grooves.") "Tailspin" was a sort of commission: Davies had been admiring the progressive house act Blue Amazon, a cult success that incorporated female voices into its beat-driven tracks, and Wratten endeavored to create something for her in that vein, in the process transforming standard-issue house rhythms into disquieting underscore. "Though I Still Want To Fall Into Your Arms," originally the b-side to "The Rainbow," was a bit of lark: uptempo, California-style country-rock with an almost cheerful message and sunny harmonies from Davies.

Perhaps even more striking than Davies' participation was how seamlessly Wratten could incorporate such an impressive range of musical ideas and influences, machine-made sounds and acoustic instruments, onto a single disc, from Byrds-like jangle to lilting Mazzy Star balladry to grand, Beatle-esque pop to that foreboding house music. Equally remarkable was how he accomplished this feat: performing most of this on his own during the summer of 1997 with the help of longtime engineer and friend Ian Catt. They worked at the studio Catt had set up in the spare bedroom of his parent's house, near Wratten's own home in Mitcham, Surrey. (Unfortunately, Catt moved his set-up to Coulsdon after that and Wratten could no longer walk to work.) Gemma Townley contributed cello to "All I Never Said," "Never Loved You More" and "Made For Each Other." Former Field Mice member Michael Hiscock added a spur-of-the-moment bass part to "Farewell To Forever" while he was visiting Wratten. In songs like the haunting "Cecilia In Black and White" and "The Rainbow," Wratten moved away from the specifics of his own romantic entanglements to a more general theme of desire and longing from afar.

The album title was another literary allusion from Wratten. The band name had been nicked from The Story Of O by Pauline Reage; Lips That Taste Of Tears came from a rueful little Dorothy Parker poem, "Threnody": "If there's one that rode away/What would I be missing?/Lips that taste of tears, they say/Are the best for kissing." (Wratten wasn't the only pop artist to pick up on Parker's melancholy verse; ABBA vocalist Frida, of all people, recorded an interpretation of "Threnody" set to music.) As for the album sleeve, Wratten had been taken with an ethereal image of actress Liv Tyler and mentioned that to Davies' sister Alison, who was designing the cover. Alison thought they could create something similar with photographer Dave Black and suggested enlisting her sister to pose. It was a bold idea, made a bit less provocative since Alison, not Wratten, had dreamed it up. Perhaps all the parties involved derived a certain subversive pleasure from their scheme, knowing it would cause a buzz, at least amongst fans. Shinkansen label owner (and former Sarah Records head) Matt Haynes didn't discover what they were up to until the day Wratten delivered the final artwork to him.

Though the artistic rapprochement of Wratten and Davies was good news to fans, the release of Lips That Taste Of Tears offered scant hope that a live version of Trembling Blue Stars would re-emerge any time soon. Davies still suffered from stage fright and Wratten remained ambivalent about his own long-term future as a performer and recording artist, despite a stack of glowing reviews. What made the album a bittersweet affair this time around was the possibility that the prodigiously gifted Wratten might not step into a studio, or onto a stage, again. His monumental breakup was largely behind him; it was his listeners now who feared a parting. None of us were ready to say farewell forever.

Michael Hill

January 2006