Champs Vamala on 180g LP + CD
With only a Radio 2 session to precede it, the debut album from brothers Michael and David Champion appeared like a bolt out of the blue. And for believers in the environmental influence on music, it makes sense the Champions hail from the hamlet of Niton outside the Victorian seaside enclave of Ventnor on the Isle Of Wight, as Down Like Gold sounded beautifully out of time and place, even with artists they could call peers.
Combining elder brother Michael's exquisitely melodic, intensely dreamy and persuasively heartbreaking songs with their folk-pop leanings, his affecting vocal timbre, David's empathic lead guitar and reinforcing harmonies that only siblings seem able to make, the album was a unique statement - much like the word Vamala, which fell out of Michael's mouth as he was singing along to a new tune. "It had a nice ring, like a Croatian girl's name," he thought.
The follow-up album Vamala follows only a year on after their debut. "The record-buying attention span is shorter these days," he reasons. "There's so much new music out there, so we wanted to get an album out quickly. But only as we had the songs." Second albums always test an artist's strength in depth, and the 12 tracks that constitute Vamala reach higher and wider than even its sublime predecessor: the up-tempo tracks are punchier (for example the lead single "Desire" and the title track) while the ballads are sparser and more haunting (head for "Forever Be Standing At The Door" and "Roll Me Out"), the sound altogether richer.
It proves that Champs were right to make some brave choices. Down Like Gold was produced by friends (brothers too), Jim and Rob Homes (aka Boe Weaver), at Studio Humbug, an old water tower belonging to Osborne House, Queen Victoria's island retreat. To initiate progress, Champs decamped to London for the new recordings. Vamala was recorded by just the brothers with producer Dimitri Tikovoi at his Kilburn studio. Given his CV (which includes Goldfrapp and Placebo), the Frenchman was another risk, but Tikovoi's rhythmic nous (he doubles as a session drummer) added more colour, including electronics, to the duo's palate.
Yet Vamala remains a definitive Champs record, beautifully rendered and resolutely melancholic. If the album is rooted in love, it's not just for people. The Isle of Wight is a regular presence. "Roll Me Out," a pure folk ballad stripped right back to voice, acoustic guitar and a spot of whistling, documents Michael's love of surfing. "Blood" and "Balfron Tower" mirror the conflicting feelings of home. Michael lived with his German girlfriend for a time at Balfron Tower, a classic 'brutalist' tower block in East London.
However, the album's eerie finale "Devil's Carnival" is a reminder that clean air and isolation also have drawbacks. Bleakness spills into the songs about relationships. A lilting "Running" ironically channels nightmares while "Sophia" recalls a summer in Vienna. "Vamala" is also a contradiction. The track is both brothers' favorite on the album. The anxiety of transience penetrates almost every Champs song, in the brothers' lifestyle (needing cities for work, treasuring their island's rural beauty) and the trick of making relationships work while always moving.
Champs Vamala Track Listing:
4. Forever Be Upstanding At The Door
5. Send Me Down
6. 3000 Miles
8. The Balfron Tower
10. Down (Alone On The Avenue)
11. Roll Me Out
12. The Devils Carnival