Summary: Windmill’s attraction is knowing when to let the melody loose, allowing the track to sweep off on its grandeur mission, and when to rein it in, affording the listener an eerie experience of never quite knowing whether the next taste will be happiness or tears.
Much is made of the UK and America’s political ‘special-relationship’ but ever since the Beatles set foot on the tarmac of the newly-renamed JFK Airport in early 1964, it’s the incestuous special-relationship of Britain and America’s pop economies that has really interested us all. And it has very strict rules.
These rules ensure only Northern English towns scarred by unemployment and Thatcher, and not Los Angeles, can produce Jarvis Cocker; rules that equally dictate Marilyn Manson could never be aloud to surface in Blackpool, playing early gigs in penny arcades and working men’s clubs. It’s a balance of power that lets the Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys equally sell trillions of records without upsetting the ying verses yang of these two pop nations.
Of course sometimes the heavens are turned upside down and Bush are formed. But generally things run smoothly – even the Killers dropped the Britpop hooks in favour of epic American stadium rock.
Rules, of course, are meant to be broken. And it’s a special kind of joy when they’re broken with such a splendid disregard as the heart-breaking Americana which comes from Windmill’s English suburbia.
Known to many in the UK as just another over-priced service station stop on the M1 as you head North from London, Newport Pagnell was at least recognised by James Bond devotees as being the home of the Aston Martin. Until 2 years ago anyway, when production was moved away by owners Ford. Now, bar lower-league footballers and soap actresses, even Wikipedia struggles to find noteworthy commentary on this small middle-England town.
Yet it’s in these streets that Matthew Thomas Dillon has been toiling away perfecting a craft that bears little influence of a British music industry obsessed with asymmetrical haircuts and skinny jeans. Dillon’s ears have instead been long tuned in to the same channels that feed the contemporary, seminal voices of America: Newsom, Stevens, Coyne, Barnhart, Donahue, Marshall, Tweedy and Smith.
Choosing a name like Windmill to represent his work is quite a metaphor from Dillon. Windmill’s sails move with the same guidance that have informed many of his contemporaries on the opposite side of the pond. Echoes of Talking Heads, Tom Waits and Joni Mitchell are beautifully littered throughout Puddle City Racing Lights while Dillon’s own voice stirs with the resonance and strained observation of an early Neil Young.
The result is a record soaked equally with comforting lo-fi as it is with grand, sweeping statements. Piano and strings constantly linger over Dillon’s words, the minimal composition lending an ever-present melancholy to match his heartfelt voice . But Dillon’s genius is knowing when to let the melody loose, allowing the track to sweep off on its grandeur mission, and when to rein it in, affording the listener an eerie experience of never quite knowing whether the next taste will be happiness or tears.
“Asthmatic” is a perfect example of this. If the tingling piano and cello at its start suggests a bold statement akin to Springsteen’s bombastic faith of the Rising, the song’s epic potential is only strengthened by the Flaming Lips-style wall of crashing drums that follow. But just when you expect the melody to soar away Dillon pulls the song back to the ground, only allowing the fragile piano to remain and giving us the words “Always breathing in / Never breathing out”. Arcade Fire would have followed the formula to its logical, spectral, conclusion, but Dillon seems inspired by the possibility of the crescendo, the light and dark of the song, the space that is sometimes covered over and forgotten. For a song he names “Asthmatic”, he actually lets it breathe.
Dillon is also a strong observer or, at least, a strong thinker. Locking himself in his bedroom for hours on end so he can perfect the vision in his head, many of the fourteen songs here have emerged over twelve years through Dillon’s careful consideration and a £300 four track. For the recording of Puddle City Racing Lights, he received assistance from members of the Earlies’ live band, former Alfie guitarist Ian Smith and co-producer Tom Knott, but before it came countless homemade albums, originally only intended for himself and a few friends’ enjoyment, which must have provided the training ground for these tracks.
The observer/thinker is redolent throughout Dillon’s lyrics. He writes evocatively about everyday things – “the detritus of modern life” as the press release puts it” – airport lounges, trains, fluorescent lights, escalators, the feel of an airport’s plastic chair before taking a flight. Just as dEUS sang about the inevitable loneliness of hotel receptions, so “Boarding Lounges” describes beautifully the awkward, perpetual, melancholy of being forced to linger in these human holding pens. Although, as Dillon repeats the line “Gates close / Escalators climb” over the raw piano and slightest of strings, it’s unclear if he is actually advocating the experience.
Dillon finds himself continually compared to Mercury Rev and Flaming Lips by lazy critics and “Tokyo Moon”, “Plastic Pre-Flight Seats” and “Plasticine Plugs” are obvious starting points for these references. Yet while there is certainly a lot of common ground between Wayne Coyne, Jonathan Donahue and Windmill’s pained, graceful, beauty, they fail to appreciate Dillon’s favoured instrument of expression; his piano. Even more than his stark, emotive voice, Dillon relies on the piano to convey the misery, the happiness, the wonder and the dismay. In this way, he has more in common with Tom Waits and Tori Amos, both of whom grew as artists through their deep relationship and exploration of the piano’s emotional and expressional possibilities. The naked piano of “Boarding Lounges” and Tilting Trains” is as stirring as on Amos’ Little Earthquakes, while “Replace Me” and “Fashion House” could easily sneak into Blue Valentine without much suspicion.
Oscar Wilde once commented “We are all in the gutter, but some of are looking at the stars”. Listening to Windmill sounds like Wilde is whispering those words in your ear.