Gentle Stranger took just one week to crystallise a set of ideas that formed the emotional core of their debut album Love And Unlearn. The band, who have a shifting cast of associated members, were then comprised of Tom Hardwick-Allan, Alex McKenzie, Josh Barfoot and Evangeline Ling (who has since left to focus on Audiobooks).
Recorded “almost all live”, there are no samples and precious few overdubs. The band are all accomplished multi-instrumentalists, and recall heading to Margate’s Prah studios by train, carrying everything from a flute, trombone, and saxophone to a dual clarinet and a smoke alarm. They even brought a toy piano, despite only needing four notes, such was their dedication to getting things right in terms of both tone and texture.
Certainly, it doesn’t take long before Love And Unlearn’s sprawling ambition becomes blindingly apparent. Opener Idle Messenger begins with soft, mournful brass before shifting to lo-fi guitar, jazz drums, shrieks, and elements of swing. It’s a lot to take in. These disparate elements jostling for position are what makes all nineteen tracks so vibrant and interesting. The dirty bassline that powers Love And Unbass, the punkish Smoke Alarms, or the gentle idle pop of Two To Carry; none of it sounds forced or contrived. Most impressive is how the band switch from the delicate and fragile – New Insect Lite or the title track – to the unsettling cacophony of Hurry Horse and Like A Deer, while still sounding unmistakeably like the same band.
The album is heavily inspired by Phillip K. Dick’s The Preserving Machine, a cautionary tale about a scientist’s desire to preserve music by transforming it into living forms. But the band also immersed themselves in Mark Fischer’s writings, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Author of the Acacia Seeds, William Blake’s Songs Of Innocence And Experience, and the work of Scottish poet Ivor Cutler.