The Phantom Tollbooth

Secret Volcanoes
Artist: Bell Jar
Label: UK indie

It is a while since listeners have been treated to songs from the pen of Paul Northup, but at long last the Eden Burning singer, along with fellow Eden Charlotte Ayrton and friends, has returned to our attention. Yet anyone expecting folk-rock in the vein of Eden Burning's early material or even their later rockier material will be surprised. Bell Jar's music is more jazz than folk, and while there were hints of this sound in some of Eden Burning's later material, it is a far cry from that band.

Musically the band is extremely tight and the musicians more than capable. They tightly weave together guitars, bass, drums, and organs in a relaxed but carefully refined manner. The guitars have the light, slightly echoed effect of chorus, and the Hammond and Rhodes organs of Stephen Whitfield add some more melodic edge. Giving the music its cohesiveness, however, is Mark Wijesinghe's bass. His playing is particularly appropriate and distinctive, particularly on tracks like "Second Time Around," the lyrics of which talk of the band's approach--they've all  been round the block as musicians and while they'd like to see their music going a long way, they aren't chasing success.

Northup's lyrics have continued to improve over the last couple of years. He has always been a songwriter able to write songs that are both introspective and outwardly relevant, but on this album he really begins to come into his own. Symbolism appears strongly, as do plays on words like the juxtapositioning of the viewpoints of his cynical and hopeful sides in the verses "Second Time Around".

"Small is Beautiful" is perhaps the catchiest of all the songs offered here: bass driven with restrained guitars, even if there is slightly too much reverb in the mix. Lyrically, it is unsurprisingly about the benefits of the small-scale and intimate:

Small is beautiful
Keep it that way
If you let it get that big
You can't give it away
The band wants to keep entirely out of any Christian subculture or labels, but nevertheless there are implicit references to Northup's reflective faith scattered throughout the album. The most clearly "Christian" content comes on "Bethlehem's Hospital":
Let's all go down
To Bethlehem's hospital
Let's all go
Won't you take my hand
If your mind's too weak
For the weight of the world
Let's all go to the healing land

And don't you be scared by the needles they use
Don't you worry, there'll be a bed
Don't be anxious as you wait in the queue
They'll give you something to ease your head"

In a live setting, Bell Jar could do with some more dynamic lead guitar or something of that ilk, to give their music more power. On the album that is not quite so true as listeners will more likely want to relax to the music, but it still feels like there could be slightly more dynamism in the brew here if the music is to really make an impact. Nevertheless, Bell Jar's brew can be intoxicating and they'll be keenly watched.

James Stewart 9/24/99