Personnel: Erland Cooper (vocals, guitar, keyboards, drums); Hannah Peel (vocals, strings, brass, keyboards); Simon Tong (guitar, keyboards, drums); Daniel Shao (flute, piccolo); Alex Card (clarinet, bass clarinet); James Field (drums).
Audio Mixer: Erland Cooper.
Recording information: Coronet Studio, London; Rockwood, Eskdale.
To inaugurate Britain's second wave of post-war development in 1961, the small mining town of Skelmersdale -- "Skem" to locals -- was designated a New Town. Redeveloped to accommodate spillover residents from nearby Liverpool, the remade Skem slowly deteriorated over the next two decades when all of a sudden it received a totally unexpected new designation. By 1984, when a young Simon Tong's family relocated there, Skem had become the official center of the U.K.'s Transcendental Meditation (TM) movement, giving the place an entirely different flavor. Fast forward a couple more decades and Tong is a respected British rock musician -- with stints in the Verve and Blur -- reprising his role as part of the collaborative trio the Magnetic North. The group, which also includes Erland Cooper and Hannah Peel, first debuted in 2012 with Orkney: Symphony of the Magnetic North, a stirring chamber pop suite informed by the rugged Scottish islands of Cooper's homeland. For their second project, it's Tong's turn to revisit his home on the pastoral Prospects of Skelmersdale. Where the cinematic beauty of the Orkney archipelago must have provided ample inspiration, Skem's mix of blocky, run-down estates and new age mysticism no doubt presented a unique challenge for the trio. Rather than an outright concept album, Prospects of Skelmersdale feels like an abstract tribute to its strange subject, glancing over different aspects of the city's still-changing landscape in brief, lightly orchestrated snapshots peppered with strings, brass, and guitars, and threaded with vintage audio samples from the Skelmersdale Development Corporation. For all of Skem's troubles, the band strikes a decidedly optimistic tone, bookending the album with pieces that reflect its TM heritage. Opener "Jai Guru Dev" is a woozy, pump organ-aided hymn that honors the founding of the city's golden-domed temple, while the closing track is a gentle rendition of "Run of the Mill" by George Harrison, an early and highly visible proponent of TM movement. In between these songs, the Magnetic North examine a range of emotions from observations on a mundane bus trip on "Death in the Woods," to the solidarity of hope on the gorgeous "Sandy Lane," whose chorus of "you are golden" ripples out sweetly against string sections and flute trills. From a musical standpoint, Prospects of Skelmersdale is appropriately more compact in scope than the Orkney album, slimming down the orchestrations in favor of smaller dramas and textured soundscapes that reflect its subject's disparate social mix. A much different but just as powerful statement as their debut, the Magnetic North have once again crafted something that is wholly unique. ~ Timothy Monger