Hotel Juicy Parlour
Sizer Barker, 2004
Liverpool, late spring, 1996. Carl Brown is walking through a cemetery with a friend, a dog and a headful of songs when his attention is caught by a headstone bearing an unusual name: 'William Sizer Barker.' Flash forward a week and Brown is sitting in his car when a large truck passes by. On its side, the name of the haulage company: 'William Barker.' He takes it as a sign. One day he will form a band. And Sizer Barker will be its name.
Sizer Barker - intriguingly strange yet reassuringly familiar. Rather like the music on Hotel Juicy Parlour, a debut album that has been gestating within Brown since that overcast day in the graveyard.
It's got the pop sensibility that seems inbred for Liverpudlians ever since the Four became Fab; heart-melting melodies and catchy choruses are all over it. But there's a darker undercurrent at work. Pretty songs implode into weird electronic fragments and sudden squalls of rock guitar, subterranean horns emerge from nowhere and then, just as swiftly, disappear. Found sounds drift in and out of the ether: distorted telephone messages from friends declaring that 'Something very strange is going on.' Indeed it is. Unusual instruments abound: a zither here, a harmonium there; recorders and accordions floating in and out of the mix. And what the hell is a shruti box?*
Sounds are dissembled, cut up, filtered, distorted. And then reassembled. Lyrics take us on unusual journeys to places distant yet familiar. Like the music. To Hollywood for a road trip to who-knows-where with a beautiful girl who may or may not be a racing driver (A Man And A Woman). Manhattan to drink Cosmopolitans in the Rainbow Room evoking a bygone era of glamour (Blue Ocean Yellow Sun). To Singapore, where a hurricane blows in a teenage girl in search of holiday romance (A Boy A Jet). A boy's bedroom back in Liverpool where he finds 'stereo heaven' (Day By Day). An imaginary future where what will be and what once was become blurred and confused (Fling Fatale). Or the dusty midday heat of India, to a remote railway station where we find the real-life 'Hotel Juicy Parlour.'
But nothing is quite what it seems. The California girl drives off into a desert sunset and the Rainbow Room closes down for ever. The girl in Singapore slips through your dreams like a swallow on a summer breeze and heaven is out of reach when you're alone in that bed. And the Hotel Juicy Parlour isn't a hotel at all - it's just a hole in a wall.
Life's like that. A collision of dreams and memories, fleeting moments that bring momentary joy and slip into the ether, leaving nothing but memories and an indefinable sense of melancholia. At least life's like that for Sizer Barker.
So how did we get here? After school Carl Brown starts learning the ropes in a Liverpool recording studio. He wants to be an engineer but his official job title is Tea Boy. He makes tea for a local producer, Ken Nelson, who will go on to work on the debuts of Badly Drawn Boy and Coldplay.
Eventually Brown gets to twiddle some knobs himself. One of his first jobs is on a demo for an unknown local singer-songwriter called David Gray. He starts to wonder what life is like on the other side of the control room window and sings backing vocals for the Lightning Seeds and Terry Hall.
Soon after, he picks up a guitar and starts writing songs, inspired by his love of Seventies singer-songwriters in general and Joni Mitchell in particular. He sends a tape to Nanci Griffith and she sends back a Christmas card from America, saying how much she enjoyed it. Encouragement is found in strange places.
Then Brown gets a call from another local band he'd once engineered. They're riding high in the charts with a song called Female Of The Species and they want him to step in for their sick guitarist on a US tour. Suddenly he's in LA, about to become a pop star. He parties like it's 1999. Because it is.
But just as he's about to make his live debut with Space, the singer loses his voice and the tour is cancelled. Brown's dreams of stardom are shattered. For now. But he's been near enough to smell it. Back in Liverpool he forms a band called Fuzzy Logic and gets a publishing deal for his songs. Once again, stardom beckons. But the publisher only wants him to write line-dancing tunes.
Despondent but on a creative high, Brown house-sits for a musician friend who's gone travelling in India and discovers his collection of unusual instruments. In a flurry of activity, he starts writing songs and lyrics, inspired by life, love and random words and phrases from magazines. He records a home-made demo under the name The Modernaires.
Then Brown calls up Space's manager. He loves the songs, offers him a deal and sends him into the studio with whizz-kid producer Markus Dravs (Eno, Bjork). Brown decides on a new name - Sizer Barker. In December 2000 the spectral ballad Day By Day is released on his manager's own Hug label. It instantly becomes single of the week on Radio 1. The critics love it too: "Strange and wonderful," says the NME. "Floaty, gorgeous and Scouse," offers Melody Maker. "A wonderful, idiosyncratic thing," declares the Guardian. Then... nothing.
A follow-up single, Something In The Park, is due to be released on 14 September 2001. It's pulled. Suddenly no one wants to put out a song about being afraid in Manhattan.
Sizer Barker shrink from a quintet to a quartet and dwindle to a trio. There's Brown plus Tim Bruzon, who started out playing church organ before the divergent influences of AC/DC and Autechre led him towards the twin epiphanies of guitars and distortion, and Maria Hughes, a bass guitarist in love with Blondie and The Beatles.
They go back into the studio and come out with an album that defies categories. But they don't have a deal until Dravs, now working with Peter Gabriel, plays him the unreleased songs by the unsigned band. Peter Gabriel tells Brown how much he likes the album and offers to release it on his label.
So here we are. Eight years on from that day in Smithdown Cemetery. Five years after Sizer Barker were formed. Three-and-a-half years after their debut single. It's been a while. But the best things come to those who wait.
* The shruti box is a very simple drone instrument, often used to accompany Indian wind instruments. It probably originated from the harmonium, but it is much smaller and has no keys.