If I were running a record label, one of the things I'd be doing right about now is gathering material and making sure I had what I needed in order to release a special, re-mastered 20th anniversary edition of Shelleyan Orphan's Helleborine next year. Originally released clear back in 1987, this is one of those little albums that didn't sell a whole lot of copies, but seemingly made just about everyone who heard it fall in love. It's one of those shooting-star type of debuts, where just about everything seems to have fallen in place, and to this day is one of the best orchestral pop albums I've ever heard.
After the release, the duo went on to record two more albums (the poppier Century Flower and the hit-or-miss Humroot), while lead singer Caroline Crawley lended her vocal talents to This Mortal Coil, as well as collaborated with artists such as Spiritualized and Josh Wink. She later formed the group Babacar with former Cure drummer Boris Williams. I'll be honest in saying that Crawley is one of my favorite female vocalists ever, and she seems to imbue just about every recording she appears on with a touch of something slightly otherwordly
Bandmate Jemaur Tayle also has quite a unique voice, and when you combine the two alongside the great instrumentation, you get something more than a little magical. The album opens strongly with "Southern Bess (A Field Holler)," as Tayle takes lead vocals while switching off with Crawley on some lovely, string and woodwind backed sections. Really, I could talk about any track on the album, but some of the best pieces include "Cavalry Of Cloud," which opens with an extended string quartet and clarinet section before bursting forth with joyous and beautiful vocals from the duo. "Midsummer Pearls And Plumes" finds Tayle soaring over double bass, acoustic guitars, and horns before the track launches into playful back and forth between he and Crawley.
Lyrically, the album fits perfectly with the sometimes baroque instrumental backing, as literature references fly about with ease and sometimes rather dark references mingle with more playful instrumentation. The closing track of "Melody Of Birth" is a perfect example of their wide ranging abilities, starting out a bit airy, with piano, soft woodwinds, and cello, before switching halfway through into something more dense and powerful. Eventually, the track gives way to crystaline chimes and single double-bass notes before one final harp reprise. At eleven tracks and just over forty minutes, Helleborine is concise, but packed with ideas. It's one of my favorite albums that not a lot of people know about.