Where The Viaduct Looms by Nell and The Flaming Lips

Release date: November 26, 2021
Label: Bella Union

At the outset, the concept of a 14 year old girl recording an album of Nick Cave cover versions with one of rock’s most experimental bands is a weird thing to fathom. But here we are with Where the Viaduct Looms, by Nell & The Flaming Lips. The back story is even more absurd so let’s start with that. Nell Smith, originally from Leeds, moved to Canada and at the age of 12 first encountered Wayne Coyne by dressing as a parrot and making her way to the front of the audience at a Flaming Lips show in Calgary. Nell had been doing this for several shows and had gotten the attention of Wayne (no idea how this happened), who sang a David Bowie cover to Nell. Amazingly, the girl sang every word back. Keeping in contact with Nell and Father Jude, the band approached Nell to do some recording with them. Covid got in the way so the plans changed to record a cover album, with Wayne selecting Nick Cave as Nell hadn’t heard his music before and wouldn’t have any pre-conceived ideas of how to sing the songs.

The seal of approval came in the form of Cave himself actually saying how good he thought their version of ‘Girl In Amber’ was. He enjoyed the transformation that Nell brought to the track by singing it in a way that he himself couldn’t do. I can’t imagine how exciting all of this must be for Nell, who writes her own songs too. Back in 2008, actress Scarlett Johansson recorded a Tom Waits cover album, with Dave Sitek of TV On The Radio. That was another album that seemed a crazy idea, but it really worked and subsequently led me to know and love the music of Waits. There’s a similarity between the two artists here, in that Scarlett’s vocal delivery was perhaps a little limited, but this enhanced the covers and brought a different perspective and dynamic to the songs.

It was ‘The Ship Song’ that caught my attention first. The reverb is tipped so high it sounds like Nell is singing from outer space, which is fitting to the accompanying spacious instrumentation. The ghostly backing vocals from Wayne add a beautiful layer to the gorgeous guitars and this song shows exactly how this bizarre concept really works. Similarly, ‘Weeping Song’ features heavily reverbed vocals which add an eerie atmosphere to the track. The instrumentation is spacious with deep synths and a lazy acoustic strum. The menace of the Cave original is replaced with an innocence yet the song still chills. On ‘We Know Who You Are’, swirling synths circle around a ponderous bass line bringing emotion to the song as Nell’s vocals drift along trying to flatline the whole thing.

 

The gospel tones of ‘O Children’ are transformed into heavenly multi tracked voices and synths that sound like voices. The Lips’ trademark distorted drums, twangy guitars and clanging chimes make for a standout track. The special effects department in the band step up for ‘No More Shall We Part’ utilising that normally redundant bird effect on their keyboard. Somehow, they twist the song to sound like Foreigner’s ‘I Want To Know What Love Is’ which I hadn’t noticed the similarity on Cave’s original. Until now.

On ‘The Kindness of Strangers’ Nell delivers a robotic vocal adding a dreamlike atmosphere to the track. Cave’s original had a playfulness to it and a leaning towards country, this version certainly moves substantially away from that. Cave’s ‘Red Right Hand’ oozed sleaze and obviously that’s not going to fit right here, so they decide to make it a rocking affair with bombastic drums and Nell sneers exuding a scary power.

Taken from the tragic Skeleton Key album the ghostly atmospherics of ‘Girl In Amber’ are recreated with lush keyboards, light guitars and that otherworldly sound that only The Flaming Lips can create, like you’ve just stepped into some fantasy dreamworld. Nell’s voice isn’t too far removed from Wayne Coyne’s, a sweet falsetto through natural functionality as opposed to a well worn man straining occasionally. Nell’s voice is equally as charming and pulls on the heart strings in the same way Wayne’s does. For ‘Into My Arms’ the luscious piano from Cave’s original is retained and somehow the song is given a brighter hue with some magical kooky synths and a poppy bass line and cheery guitars. The intention of breathing new life into these already great songs has been realised to full effect.

The process of creating this record wasn’t the easiest for Nell, when asked about the experience she commented “ I still can’t really believe it. It was a really steep learning curve but Wayne was so encouraging when I was struggling with a few of the songs that I kept going. I hadn’t heard of Nick Cave but Wayne suggested that we should start with an album of his cover versions, and then look at recording some of my own songs later”. So there seems to be more in the pipeline for Nell, in terms of collaborating with The Flaming Lips. Based on this album, this is an exciting and enticing prospect and I look forward to hearing more.

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