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"Album: Borderville – Joy Through Work"

The semi-real borough of Borderville – half City of Lost Children, one quarter Airstrip One, two twentieths Brazil, three twentieths Parnassus – has given birth to a conceptual nightmare, a giant mirror that will reflect for you, should you wish it, a chromatic and blinding vision of ‘the daily grind’ we call life. But they’re neither Jean-Pierre Jeunet hyperactive dwarfs nor cannibalistic butchers to carve up the bloody truth here, but a grim and beautiful picture of Dystopian Today, the City we inhabit, the shit that turns the wheels; ‘the cry behind the eye of every person that you meet, in the lung and on the tongue and in the movement of the feet; it’s the barely hidden hunger for the meat, meat, meat!’. Yes, Borderville has succeeded in giving birth to the world’s first glam rock sat-opera devoted to the cogs in the machine: the royal We, as in You. Ian Anderson would be proud. Has anybody sent him a copy?

Hewn lovingly from 24-carat Glam-ore – mined from Borderville’s many spiritual quarries no doubt – the band finally releases this debut opus of musical theatre. It consists of an ebullient guided tour of their City, replete with one hundred stark personalities. And through this tour, we see that in fact Borderville is a microcosm of our own machination. As a debut album it is epic; in fact it is so massive, it beggars belief that everything is done and dusted within 45 minutes. But we don’t realise the parallel with our own City at the outset, so we gaily embark with earpieces on loud and guidebooks open, eager to learn from each and every garish and gothic exhibit (spread unevenly across 13 tracks) on display. And what better tool to show us around a capitalist dystopia than via glam prog rock? Exactly.

And wow. We never guessed how scathing yet spastic a tale this was going to be. Five minutes in and we’ve seen visceral panic, ten and we’ve witnessed spasmodic-convulsive theatrics; fifteen, nervous pop; soporific nursery rhyme. Early track ‘Joy’ manages in four lines to both crush any hope you may have of finding peace within the shadows of capitalism, whilst sending you into a happy slumber (a bit like soma, then). The middle quartet of tracks is itself pure vaudeville, with title track ‘Joy Through Work’ sounding as ironic and hysterically English as Thick As A Brick ever was but condensed into just five manic minutes. What a city. This could be the soundtrack to Terry Gilliam’s latest epic. But the penny’s dropped by now; the paranoia’s probably not just allegorical. Cigarette breaks really are just illusions of freedom!

Singer Joe Swarbrick and his bunch of merry misfits have perhaps been leading up to this record for a good many years. At one point Swarbrick was front man of Sexy Breakfast, last seen creating swathes of demented candour, scenes of widescreen madness, to the theme from of The Snowman. Here, we’re reminded of The Wall in terms of ambition, but narrated by Happiness Stan. And like Chris T-T did with his London trilogy, the story hits home when we glimpse, fleetingly, some of the multiple personalities struggling to make some sense of Borderville. For example – and strikingly – out of all the consumerist reference and bile, track ‘Blood on the Kitchen Floor’ evokes the darkest images in the album, describing an event of two summers ago, a note left on the kitchen table explaining ‘why she’s sick of this town’. At an earlier stop, Swarbrick achieves both derision and pity towards ‘the scene, the scene/the bright young things/the angular haircuts/the skinny tight jeans’. Ironically, the track is the only to sound anything like the scene we’re looking at. But this street is short; our guide doesn’t dwell for long and leading us around a corner we find ourselves face to face with the ‘Beast of England’, a schizophrenic neighbourhood full of crack-wizened smiles and rusty spoons. Like staring helplessly at a suburban Brownfield site in which a deranged Luke Haines, in some lunatic acid hysteria, is gyrating frantically around a disused TV set, there are twisted tales on offer here.

The line about ‘hidden hunger for the meat, meat, meat!’ from ‘Joy Through Work’ is recapped with modified lyrics – almost a leitmotif – in ‘Work’; as we turn corner after corner, we catch glimpses of distant blocks that we visited earlier on: ‘There’s a sickness in the heart of every person I have met/that eats away ambition/and replaces it with debt/and monotony and hunger and a dull regret’. Only mildly garnished with glumness, this is a candid record to face what could become, in the wrong hands, too serious a topic. After our tour however, we climb a hill and look down at Borderville. It twinkles in the twilight. And up here, free from demonic personalities, we meet our guide’s real family. ‘They’re all that you’ve got for your own’, reminds Swarbrick. The contraption might be terrible, says Borderville, but sod the machine; the cogs are human. Wait, change the address on that envelope – Terry Gilliam should get a copy of this.

Joy Through Work is self-released, available in gatefold hard copy and on all major digital platforms from 7th December

Adam Fletcher -

"Album Review"

No-one would have believed, in the last years of the twentieth century, that ornate, theatrical pop music would ever be seen again. Whilst Travis was paving the featureless yellow path that led to Coldplay’s ubiquity, the ears of the scene were either tuned to dour, po-faced post-rock expanses in the form of Mogwai and Godspeed or the mumbled introspection of Low and The Tindersticks. And yet, some survived who believed in the power of drama, who revelled in the communicative possibilities of façade and pretence, who felt that musical invention was better shown by intricate, intelligent orchestration than by the portentous length of tracks (or their titles). And slowly, and surely, they drew their plans against us.

Whilst cabaret pop hasn’t precisely taken over the world, Borderville’s gloriously over-reaching debut album seems a perfect zeitgeist Polaroid, a record so theatrical it should come with a glossy programme and an unfeasibly overpriced ice cream. And it’s an incredible piece of work, welding Bowie’s cracked actor dramatics to off-Broadway torch songs, with crescendos direct from Queen’s halcyon days. Joe Swarbrick may not have the most agile – or even tuneful – voice in town, but he may well have the most expressive, alternating between stage whisper and Christ-pose rock howl to wring every ounce of emotion from elaborate rock opera opuses. The wonderful “Short Sharp Shock” is a prime example, capturing the whiff of deflated expectations as a band packs up after a show, offsetting some emotive, barely pitched yelps with massed Original Cast Recording backing vocals. Everything about this surprisingly varied LP is overdone to a T, and Borderville have clearly realised that, whilst sincerity and chest-bashing might do the trick, emotions can be far more powerfully expressed if we all realise they’re artificial. The mask is always more frightening once you know it’s a mask.

The rest of the band is also superb, dealing in the wild dynamic variations that can only be achieved with sensitively controlled ensemble playing. Keyboard player “Woody” Woodhouse deserves especial praise for his improbably fluent runs across the ivories, the synth whoops of live favourite “Glambulance”, the tipsy stumbling solo of “Lover, I’m Finally Through” and the jerky mazurka of “Short Sharp Shock” particularly standing out. What’s most impressive about the record is how much variation the band achieves with a relatively sparse sonic palette: it would have been all too easy to drench everything in swooning strings and ersatz effects, but Borderville have retained the sound of a simple rock quartet and pushed it into some intriguing places

No matter how unfair we find it, most of the world considers every damn person in Oxford to be a limp-wristed, pretentious, teddy-clutching silver spoon sucker, honking away about Byron and ponies. A review of Winnebago Deal some years ago in the NME said something like, “What are you lot so grumpy about? Was your 15th century quad not properly manicured this morning?” Yes, even the whiskey-soaked death-grunge hollers of two hairy creatures from darkest Eynsham brought forth plummy images from Uncle Monty’s most rose-tinted recollections. We feel that, if this is how the world sees us, we should embrace it. We’ve already given the world the preppy Bowdlerised art-funk of Foals and Stornoway’s warm-jumpered folk poetry, let’s complete the picture with Borderville’s greasepainted bombast. Cherish them. -

"Album Review"

Obviously Borderville couldn’t just release any old debut album. It had to be a full-on concept album, with a narrative arc that deals with humanity’s relationship with work, obsession and control; it’s an album about relationships, but it’s never obvious who or what the singer’s relationship is with. The singer, of course, is Joe Swarbrick, a man who is, even by the intellectual and literate standards of the best Oxford music, is particularly literate, a musician who has never lost sight of rock music’s primary purpose to entertain on multiple levels, which is why Borderville gigs are such a joy to watch, and a reviewer’s wet dream.

Without the visuals of their stage show, Borderville have incredible strength in depth, notably from virtuoso keyboard player Tom ‘Woody’ Woodhouse, but there’s a freedom and creativity to every instrument on ‘Joy Through Work’ that gives the music a lively flamboyance that’s so rare in contemporary guitar music. In fact Borderville have more in common with musical theatre than rock music – witness the careering moods of ‘Flights’, just one of myriad highlights on the album, with its amphetamine piano runs and a span that connects Queen on the one shore to West Side Story on the other. The album’s title track, meanwhile, sounds like Les Miserables if it had been written by David Bowie in his ‘Aladdin Sane’ period, awash with gothic camp and you can picture a massed chorus line twirling and hanging off the set as it carousels through its tale of workplace drudgery. Further along ‘Glambulance’ is pure The Sweet-do-Rocky Horror with its glam-rock terrace stomp and hysterical silliness.

What is so fascinating about Borderville’s songs is the sheer number of ideas they cram into four or five-minute songs; nothing stays still long enough to get comfortable: one moment Joe is all operatic annunciation, the next he’s locked his lyrics tightly into the beat, while Woody is always on hand to rip a tune to shreds and take it on the next fairground ride. If this makes Borderville sound like ADHD progrockers, that’s only half the story – they can do delicate, pretty pop too, like the sweet, folksy ‘The Protesters’, the introverted piano ballad ‘Stage Fright’ or the angsty ‘Blood On The Kitchen Floor’, although the latter is perhaps the album’s sole weak point: one of the few songs here you could imagine any other band coming up with.

Like any great show, Borderville leave the biggest and best tunes to the end: ‘Lover, I’m Finally Through’ is a drunken musical hall waltz, part Brecht & Weill, part Leiber & Stoller: you can just picture the decadent subterranean cabaret bar with its cast of lost, frustrated caricatures, desperate for escape, while ‘Lights II’ is an heroic, possibly redemptive reprise of the earlier version.

‘Joy Through Work’ sits in an uneasy lineage of theatrical rock albums that runs through ‘Aladdin Sane’ and Marc & The Mambas’ ‘Torment & Toreros’, but it feels unique held up against not just the rest of Oxford’s recent musical output, but almost any mainstream rock album. A triumph, then. - Nightshift


Joy Through Work - album released 05/12/09

Short Sharp Shock - single released 14/02/09

Waltziche - EP released 24/11/07



"Already creating a huge wave of hype in and around Oxford, they're a bunch of ragtag urchins who make raucous, inspiring indie." - NME

"Borderville could well be on a mission to save music." - The Fly

"And wow. We never guessed how scathing yet spastic a tale this was going to be. Five minutes in and we’ve seen visceral panic, ten and we’ve witnessed spasmodic-convulsive theatrics; fifteen, nervous pop; soporific nursery rhyme." Sound Screen

Borderville are a four-piece cabaret rock band who hail from the semi-fictional town of Borderville. Featuring a former drag-queen on vocals, an electronica wunderkind and member of Keyboard Choir on the keys, a conceptual artist who builds creatures out of bones and skin on the bass and a drummer stolen from the orchestra pit of a production of West Side Story, their current incarnation formed in early 2008 with the intention of marrying theatricality, glamour and intricate, classically inspired arrangements to heavy walls of noise. From support slots with Guillemots to Oxford’s acclaimed Truck Festival and regular show-stopping appearances around the country, their unique approach to performance calls to mind Jaques Brel, The Birthday Party and David Bowie.

‘Joy Through Work’, their hotly-anticipated debut album, was released across all major digital platforms on 7th December. Recorded and produced by pianist Tom Woodhouse, this heart-wrenching, confrontational concept album is a densely layered, widescreen affair, gloomily gothic and ebulliently glamourous by turn; epic, punky, gutsy and moving.