Ennio The Little Brother has a double album coming out on 2 October – we have an advance review from Matthew Loughlin Day.
2020 eh? It’s thrown its fair share of curveballs.
Of course, you know that, you don’t need me to labour the point, listing examples of the sheer lunacy we have endured thus far, however allow me, if I may, to draw your attention to one of the more pleasant surprises this year of our Lord has tossed our way.
In those early, naive days of 2020’s infancy, I was anticipating that come the close of play, my favourite album of the year might come from an act I was already aware of and wildly in love with (hello El Goodo, Bill Callahan and co.), or maybe from a heavy hitting stalwart, releasing something to remind us of how it’s done (kind of you to join us, Mr. Dylan and the Cornershop lads).
There was also of course always the chance my album of the year might come seemingly out of nowhere, flooding my consciousness, by an artist I knew nothing about (enter Keeley Forsyth and LYR).
Essentially, what I’m trying to say is, I thought I knew what to expect. Didn’t we all.
So just as I didn’t expect that come October I’d be spending my days arguing on Twitter with wild-eyed David Icke acolytes about the merits or dangers of wearing a facemask in the Lidl, back in January 2020, I didn’t expect was that my album of the year would be an odyssey of Cymraeg-Dream-Hip-Hop. In my defence, I was just a pup back then.
But, here we are. I’ll nail my colours to the cliché and state that ‘Goodbye Magnolia Stump‘ by Connah’s Quay’s Ennio the Little Brother is the finest album of 2020.
Released through the indefatigable Mai 68 Records who, in an almost photosynthesis-like process seem to convert enthusiasm and sheer love for creation into finished products, this fine double slab of vinyl sounds like a collection of everything and nothing you’ve heard before; it is a smouldering melting pot of all the lives and loves you’ve led and been led by; all the people you’ve been and been with and all the dreams you’ve had – the ones that you held onto and the ones that faded as they rose to the sky like smoke rings.
Soren Kierkegaard hypothesised that though life must be lived forwards, it can only be understood backwards; ‘Goodbye Magnolia Stump‘ is the aural equivalent of this truism.
Thematically, this is a backwards-looking album, but – and this must be emphatically stressed – not in a mawkish, syrupy “weren’t life better in the old days?!” way that celebrates the ‘good old days’ simply because they’re old and we survived to tell the tale.
Rather, this is a reflective, deeply moving body of work by an artist that doesn’t get lost in their past, but instead, uses it to work out where and who they are now.
This isn’t an easy feat to pull off. It’s all too easy to overdose on the opium of nostalgia and chase the dragons of yesteryear, but by deftly weaving in references to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, writing letters to Father Christmas and being taken to social clubs to drink blackcurrant cordial whilst also bringing the listener back to the present moment with a thoroughly modern sound and current reflections (“absence is a funny thing..”), across ‘Goodbye Magnolia Stump‘, Ennio expertly prevents us from straying into such territories.
As opposed to sticking his head in a bucketful of memories, the dreams of childhood and the lost hours of sticky summer evenings are mused upon but then used as launching pads to where Ennio finds himself now – and where he finds himself is a very special place indeed.
The whole album is a masterclass in delivering understated surprises, and this is no more evident than in its lyrical content, which is idiosyncratic, charming and poignant, to the extent that there isn’t a lazy rhyming couplet in sight.
Over the two discs, promises are made in French (“Mon amour, j’attendrai tout ma vie…“) and we are bombarded by a machine-gun rounds of fluent Italian, whilst at the same time references are made to Tekken 2, dungarees and “LL and CH postcodes” – it’s that skilfully done, this Evertonian will even forgive – nay, applaud – the line about that Stan Collymore goal.
William Blake famously said if we look, we can see the world in a grain of sand; Ennio proposes we can find the same in a scuffed casey football.
That’s not to say however that this is an album solely made up of pic ‘n’ mix sugar coated lines, as amidst the lightness there are also much more contemplative moments such as the title track and the stunning single ‘Wanna Talk?‘, both of which pair the enormity of life’s journey with its sheer absurdity.
Of these two, the latter in particular is a magnificent understated letter to a loved one, offering support, normalising difficulties and singing the praises of allowing yourself to be ever so slightly vulnerable and able to talk about it all.
Whilst any attempt to bring mental health issues to the forefront of conversation and collective consciousness is to be wildly applauded, there is always a danger that in the wrong hands it becomes a tokenistic, meaningless gesture that unintentionally trivialises such issues – “it’s OK to not be OK” can be said so often on social media it loses any impact and quickly becomes wallpaper psychology, for instance. With ‘Wanna Talk?‘ however, such pitfalls are deftly dodged and instead, it represents a genuine, heartfelt sentiment that even though it is clearly a personal tale being recounted, it cuts through and opens itself up the universal; we don’t know the full details of the song’s “little bro”, but we don’t need to.
But that is only half the story here and there is a risk that by solely focusing on Ennio’s lyrics, the fantastic musicianship is overlooked.
‘Dreamy‘ is a lazy term often employed in reviews such as this that usually means there is a fair bit of reverb on the track and maybe a bit of tremolo.
Yet with ‘Goodbye Magnolia Stump‘, dreamy seems apt in the sense that many sounds on show here are ephemeral; they slip in and out of the consciousness and just as they begin to make sense, they vanish.
Take the languid, woozy opening track, ‘Moon Friend‘. Over a hypnotic looped guitar riff (yes, covered in reverb), phased vocals shimmer and beats come and go. Similarly, the sprawling ‘Dungarees‘ changes gears just before we feel as if we know what we are dealing with, as does the stunning ‘Bunkbeds’.
Given the aforementioned subject matters, such subtleties colour the album in a refracted light, that displays all the colours of the spectrum at once, just changing emphasis on certain aspects of it as it moves.
Recorded samples of voicemails are dropped in, here and there, vocoders are hinted at and more than anything, there is some outstanding guitar work. Part Nile Rogers-funk at times, part Bill Ryder-Jones tenderness at others, it is punctuated by bursts of soaring solos that Prince would sell his raspberry beret for.
At 13 tracks, there is a risk that the album becomes one-dimensional, yet there is enough of a range of sounds and textures here that this is another problem avoided. Digital shuffling beats underneath distant guitar and synths – and probably a whole ream of other influences outside of this writer’s knowledge – is the main mode of operation here, though there is variation to that that prevents stagnation.
Tucked away on side three for instance is the haunting, sparse ‘Joy’, which contains no more than five words, some fluid guitar, a heavily reverbed, ghostly vocal and some whistling. It’s stunning.
Overall, and importantly, the album represents a huge leap forward for Ennio in terms of his recorded output.
As wonderful as his previous offerings have been (I urge you all to immediately go and hunt down previous b-side ‘Nos Da‘ for instance), there has been a slight itch that recordings have fallen ever so slightly short of Ennio’s live shows, which see the one-man Soundsystem create spiralling, intoxicating woozy songs, punctuated with bursts of vivid colour. With ‘Goodbye Magnolia Stump‘, that itch is well and truly scratched.
By carrying on much further, I run the risk of not only ending up in Private Eye’s Pseud’s Corner here, the part of that magazine dedicated to overblown hyperbole, but of dissecting the album too much and thereby taking the magic out of it. Go and buy this urgently and pass a copy onto a friend.