Songs about watching someone watching YouTube in the dark: there’s only one Tom Rosenthal. Except there isn’t. There’s two. And I wrote about the wrong one. ‘Did you hear that agreeable, brown-haired mid-twenties man Tom Rosenthal has released an album?’ asks my lunchtime companion. Hence my original review, discussing – no doubt to the confusion of the singer-songwriter Tom Rosenthal, who is unrelated to the comedian Tom Rosenthal – about how this album was odd, coming from a TV comic. So this re-write comes with profuse apologies to the ‘real’ Tom Rosenthal.
Actually, I’m rather glad a more astute journalist flagged up my error, for the sake of ‘I Like it When You’re Gone’: the deliciously mellow centrepiece of Tom Rosenthal’s Who’s That in the Fog?, to which I re-listened after a ‘digestion’ period longer than the Culture or Trash bods usually get in their review-writing duties, and loved. So the record deserves patience. The subtle, Impressionistic piano work on this track is a real highlight, and sustains right through to the sparse final tune ‘A Thousand Years’.
Today (as it did the first time I wrote about it), the album begins brightly: its opening quartet of songs belonging to the twee-revivalist pop school; hopping about like it’s the beardy days of 2010, with some whistling – some genuine whistling – canoodling its way into ‘Sex, Death and Landscapes’. Such jollities sit interestingly alongside the thoughtful passages. On ‘Little Big Mistakes’, Rosenthal pays lyrical tribute to how we are all the ‘fastest sperm’, before transitioning into a promising Thom Yorke-informed falsetto wail.
But these flashpoints of inspiration – of creative clarity amid the titular ‘fog’ – go underdeveloped. The neat Handel-lite violin arpeggios which close off ‘Bob in the Rain and the Lizard of Hope’? Similarly underdeveloped. It’s an album of moments; the ultimate issue is consistency. That said – dismiss a Tom Rosenthal hastily, and you’ll live to regret it..!
The opening minutes of Who’s That in the Fog? unveil instrumentation calling to mind Badly Drawn Boy’s About A Boy movie soundtrack, sprinkled with some Passenger-style guitar work. Yes, you are correct, that is also the government-approved prescription for the quickly offended easy listener. Music to accompany a coma, you might say. Luckily, Rosenthal’s endearingly idiosyncratic voice brings depth, especially on ‘Outerspace Mover’, featuring Vampire Weekend-style dreamy cooing that curls up inside your ear and gently purrs.
On sparse tribute ‘Ian’ there are some seriously questionable violins, which dabble in scratchy delivery and teeter over into the string-murdering territory inhabited by learners. Somehow the result is profoundly sad rather than humourous.
I feel that Tom Rosenthal demands a lot of patience from his listeners, because as ‘Who’s That In The Fog?’ progresses, the tempo slides, the musical palette shrinks and there are songs called ‘I like It When You’re Gone’; it becomes rather bleak. Lyrics like “don’t sigh, nothing’s gonna take you away from me girl” on ‘Sex, Death & Landscapes’ illustrate themes of disillusionment and sadness, subjects looking for rescue in a figurative fog.
That aforementioned violin becomes more prevalent as the listener gropes through Rosenthal’s misty musical, reaching an urgent peak on ‘Bob in the Rain and the Lizard of Hope’ (finally, a song about lizards), coming as a welcome injection of energy in the closing act.
There is light here, thoughtful warmth and dreamy melodies but for much of Who’s That in The Fog?, a grey musical shroud governs proceedings.
Tom Rosenthal is a beautiful antidote to many of the bland, slickly produced “singer/songwriters” on the market these days, and his debut record ‘Who’s That In The Fog’ resonates with lo-fi, poetic production, sumptuous harmonies and some just utterly lovely songs.
The album is beautifully restrained – songs are paired back, when other instruments are added, it is done with care and precision. The scratched violin on Ian, calling to mind Warren Ellis’ playing with The Dirty Three, a real highlight.
Indeed, Nick Cave seems to be a quite obvious musical touchstone for the record – think Cave a la Into My Arms rather than Honeybee Let’s Fly To Mars. But then, a song like Outerspace Mover could sit happily on lo-fi folkster Adem’s Love & Other Planets record, while Too Many Candles sounds like Fionn Regan covering Antony & The Johnsons.
The album lulls in the middle somewhat – Watching You Watching YouTube In The Dark and Little Big Mistakes don’t reach the highs of the previous songs, but the simplicity, and again, restraint of I Like It When You’re Gone reminds you of Rosenthal at his best. A really wonderful record that sits apart from a lot of what is coming out of this country right now.