Leigh Toro – L’Esprit De L’Escalier (Eilean Recordings, 2014)


As more or less every other review of this record has raised the point of mentioning that the phrase in its title, “L’esprit de l’escalier” refers to a French expression describing the sensation of thinking of the perfect comeback after the argument has passed, I felt I would be derelict in my duty to not mention it myself. What most don’t mention is that, at least in my view, the title and the content of the music itself fail to match one another; there’s no expression of pained realisation or bitterness, the album’s focus comes from Leigh Toro’s extensive travelling of European waterways in recent time and the experiences and sights found therein.

References to this itchy and non-stationary lifestyle are littered through the album; “The Grand Union”, a clear reference to the canal, ushers in the beginnings of wholly more percussive movements after more twinkly and indeterminate beginnings, its choppy instrumentation chugging through the mix like the beating, somewhat stuttery, heart of an engine, the soft drone lines the water or even perhaps the quiet grey conurbation that has risen around it. This passage through urbanity is brought up a little later in the flat, miserable electronica of “Phantam”, unwinding on mindless idiosyncratic synth lines as the train carriages rattle forwards through the depressing and unnatural cityscape, just a nobody sitting conscientiously in amongst a million others. These impermanences are expressed most beautifully in the introspective piano tinklings of “Temporary People Passing Through” as briefly impressionistic drones brush alongside our own little journey before fading back into their own world, most likely never to be seen again.

It’s not all vaguely melancholic introspections though, the first few tracks are bright and optimistic visions; opener “Billowing” is a jangly and quixotic piece filled with funny little glitches, vocal fragments and field recordings smushed together into a glimmering mass of electronica. It’s a little like peering off the edge of our boat into the water below and watching ourselves ripple and split apart in the wash, peaceful and contented. “Cuckoo Wharf” follows in its footsteps, albeit rather more constrained and simplified, as it unfurls delicate synth turnings (ala “Phantam” but softer and more chipper) to the delicate sounds of birdsong and some miscellaneous yet familiar creakings, while “Stones & Steam” seems to take a moment to slow down even further and walk the footpaths, savouring the feel of solid ground as it gazes out upon the other vehicles with which it shares the waterways and whistles away in a satisfied and content fashion.

A few pieces make use of the guitar to decent effect, in particular the quaint “Pavilions” in which it is the primary instrument of choice and, whilst still sounding a little resigned and introverted, seeks to blow away some of “Temporary People”‘s morose vibes with its poly-rhythmic guitar work and whirring, reversed notes. One of the better and most focused pieces of the album for me, with perhaps the exception of the closing title track, whereupon we experience much of the sonic experience from across the record smeared into one piece. It’s actually very calm and collected, harmonising sparse synth drones, soft piano strokes and delicate glitch and static lines into a cool and streamlined listening experience. Again it invokes very little sensation of its namesake at all, unless the French are very much more unconcerned in regards of winning arguments.

I have pretty mixed feelings over this record; it’s not bad by any stretch, but I can’t help feel that it’s rather underreaching and unimaginative, perhaps even a little boring. And unless I’m misreading the themes behind the record I see an almost total disconnect between the track titles and their conceptual content and what the album would perhaps have us think about; where is the “staircase wit” and regret that we’re promised in its title? Nothing about this seems particularly retrospective, in fact it feels deeply dynamic and spontaneous which is something I really appreciate, but despite the clever turn of phrase it seems wholly unrelated which makes it a little jarring for me; a little too aimless to be enjoyable.