Reviews – Spleen

Review: Bizzarre Date: July 1998
Spleen – Little Scratches

Once upon a time a record exec had a really great idea: assemble a rock group who had proved their talent with other great bands. Over the next 20 years he came up with some stormers: Asia, The Band and Tom Petty’s irrepressible Travelling Wilburys. The music-buying public were amazed. How could such a sound idea produce such arse results?

Spleen’s Little Scratches is the rebuttal. Mastermind, Rob Ellis, who is used to collaborating with top bods like PJ Harvey and John Cale, has utilised the talents of Terry Edwards (Tindersticks, Gallon Drunk and his own outfit The Scapegoats) and John Parish (PJ Harvey, 16 Horsepower), amongst others for his Spleen project. We talked to Terry about how this weird album of jazz-tinged indie grooviness came about.

Where did you record the album? 
It was in a cottage on a dairy farm. Rob just hired all the recording equipment and stayed there for however long it took. The drums were set up in one room, like an outhouse, in the yard. Twice a day cows would be herded past and we’d have to down tools until the commotion had died down.

Did you plan to seclude yourselves in the countryside while recording? 
It was through necessity, because the other studio near to Rob’s was booked out when we were there, so we couldn’t get in.

It is very disquieting. Did you set out to make a strange record? 
I don’t know how intentional it is. As you can tell by the writing credits it’s not all Rob’s stuff, although it was really his baby – he’s got a very good socialist outlook to splitting up songwriting credits. If you’ve had some sort of input which has changed the shape of the song he cuts you in as a co-writer. Generally speaking they’re three-quarters his. I think lyrically Tim Fathing did quite a lot of work but I didn’t meet everyone.

You weren’t all there at the same time? 
No. only backing tracks were put down altogether. Rob had dome a lot of stuff pre-production, writing quite meticulously on computer. But I don’t think it has too much of a machine-y feel, he’ sused the technology really well.

Edited by Mark Blacklock © Bizarre

Review: The Wire Date: July 1998
Spleen – Little Scratches

Steeped in melancholy and regret, Spleen’s second album takes the dark-cloak-and-dagger comedy of The Sisters Of Mercy and wraps it in the group’s own entangles webs of downtrodden melodrama. Rather than going down the easy route of pastiche, however, Spleen take this stuff very seriously.

Conceptually, Little Scratches simulates the plight of the victim, through grisly depictions of depravity, abuse and exploitation. The female narrator of ‘203’ begins, ‘There are 203 bones in the human body, I have broken 202’. As the piece unfolds, however, canned laughter cues the black humour of the dialogue. Little Scratches takes much of it’s trenchant style from Spleen’s strangely distorted viewing of trashy horror films like they were European arthouse movies. Not unlike a Zombie picture, ‘The Drone Chorus of Home’ tracks each sow, excruciating movement through the thick midnight air.

The treated voices and drawling monologues of Rob Ellis (ex-PJ Harvey drummer) and Lou Ciccotelli (ex-God drummer, now in Mass) give weight to the album’s grisly themes. ‘Like A Watermelon’, Ciccotelli’s anecdotal biography of an unknown loser, is a graphic litany of gore amid neon-lit city backstreets: ‘Sheets of blood billowed before me / And my head started bubbling and fizzing’. The way Ciccotelli tells them, you can visualise him before the microphone, his head bowed, his lips creasing into a slight, yet terrifying smile as he imagines listeners recoiling from the horror’s he’s describing.

Velimeir Pavle Ilic © The Wire

Review: Venue Date: June 1998
Spleen – Little Scratches

Rob Ellis, the spleen venter himself, follows up last year’s challenging and critically acclaimed ‘Soundtrack To Spleen’ LP with a mighty, 14 strong collection of new material and an all-star line up that includes hornmeister Terry Edwards, John Parish, Pascal Humbert of 16 Horsepower and long time collaborator PJ Harvey (who shares a writing credit on ‘In A Silent Violent Way’).

Veering from wistful jazz grooves to machine-like punk poundings (often in the same song), ‘Little Scratches’ is a focused, angry album full of inspired flourishes which also conveys an overall feeling of menacing playfulness.

On opening track ‘It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie’, Ellis’s production cuts in privately recorded arguments and cracked 30s dance music beneath Jo Meiris’s shell-shocked narration. Ellis himself takes the vocal lead on tracks such as ‘Like A Watermelon’, his deep, unsettling voice a disturbing counter to the song’s jazz vibe.

‘Thatman/Throbbing’, the standout, ‘My Tracks’ and ‘203’ start out as straightforward enough guitar belters, but complex melodies and rhythms start to bleed out so that the songs become unrecognisably bent out of shape by the time they reach their climax. Lyrically, the songs are claustrophobic, often including nightmarish imagery (‘203’ – ‘There are 203 bones in the human body/I have broken 202/I broke my first nobe 45 seconds after I was born/after the severance of the cord’, being a prime hint that we’re not dealing with Aqua’s writer here) but equally interesting are the musical arrangements bubbling behind the words, especially on the mammoth (and frankly bonkers) ‘It’s OK To Laugh’.

CJ Warren © Venue

Review: Melody Maker   Date: February 1997
Spleen – Soundtrack To Spleen

This man makes music which conjures up thoughts of night-time; of movies; deserted alleyways with puddles and dark figures in shadows; spinning carousels; snatches of conversation between lovers, or underworld characters, or, well, you name it. Sometimes, the rhythms and the beats are so persuasive that you can’t think of anything at all – but your body’s telling you plenty. And he gave it the name Spleen.

‘I like the word’ he says. ‘Obviously, it’s loaded with symbolism: venting your spleen, a seeminly useless organ…it appeals to me.’

Spleen were finely tuned for two years before blurting themselves out overnight on their critically acclaimed debut LP, ‘Soundtrack To Spleen’. Current single ‘Like A Watermelon’ (a 12″ remix off ‘STS’), with its giant lolloping warm breakbeat, superstitious melody, Lou Ciccotelli’s (of Laika fame) mumbled narrative and a trumpet that sounds like a John Zorn sax, shows that the Spleen sound has finally laid anchor in its own stormy waters.

‘That’s the way things are going, for the recordings at least’ says the man. ‘I’m going to get together a live show for the summer and I’ve no idea how I’ll present that, or who’ll perform with me. But, before then, I’ll have recorded another album.’

When you see him in the flesh, you’ll instantly know him. He’s PJ Harvey’s original drummer. Recently, he toured with PJ and John Parish, promoting their ‘Dance Hall At Louse Point’ LP. Mostly though, Rob Ellis hangs out at home in Dorset these days, surrounded by instruments and computers which sound like instruments. Making music. Then he finds a proper studio and calls in his talented friends – Ms Polly this time round, Head and Pete of Bristol’s Static Sound System and Mr Lou Ciccotelli – who come and mess things up a little. They do it lovingly.

‘It seems to work,’ he says. ‘I just have to keep changing my skin all the time.’

He especially seems to like that part.

Ngaire-Ruth © Melody Maker

Review: NME   Date: January 1997
Spleen – Like A Watermelon

Yet more scrawled missives from the underbelly of smalltown psychosis, Bristol’s Swarf Finger is another label destined for greatness in 1997. Spleen, mostly the work of sometime Peej Harv sideman Rob Ellis, here re-work three tracks from their scary dub-noir album – ‘Soundtrack To Spleen’ – into sawn-off breakbeat workouts, and crunchy distortion riffs. Bebop meets trip-hop in an orgy of panicky congestion, ending with a saloon bar piano having a fatal seizure and imploding.Great.


Review: Vox   Date: October 1996
Spleen – Soundtrack To Spleen

Rob Ellis was the star drummer on the first two PJ Harvey albums, thrashing the music like a jazzed-out Led Zeppelin fan. He also sang falsetto backing vocals and arranged the string quartet version of ‘Man Size’. You always reckoned that his post-PJ adventure would be a weird one, and happily, the Spleen project doesn’t disappoint.
It’s a dark, unsettling concept album, with adultery, drug abuse and the menacing brass-playing of Terry Edwards. Obvious comparisons include Gallon Drunk, Barry Adamson and Tom Waits, but the unique factor is the appearance of Polly Harvey, immersed in yet another freakish role, seemingly having a great time.
The gory finale is literally well orchestrated, with the music and rhythms suggestive of some fiery Spanish bloodrite. Thus, by the end of the record, the lovers and the listeners alike have been brutally tangoed.

© Vox

Review: Vox   Date: September 1996
Spleen – Soundtrack To Spleen

Officially taking time out of 96 for rest and recreation, the mighty PJ Harvey has nevertheless managed to feature on two strartling records. The first is Spleen’s ‘Soundtrack To Spleen’ – composed by Rob Ellis, who played drums with Peej on her first two albums and who organised the string arrangements on ‘Rid Of Me’. Just out, it’s the strangest record; jazz-noir with the deathly brass of Terry Edwards and a storyline about adultery, intrvenous drug-stabbing and knife attacks. Meanwhile, on ‘Dance Hall At Louse Point’, a collaboration with her old friend John Parish, Polly cruises through the cocktail bar classic ‘Is That All There Is?’, immortalised by Peggy Lee. The sophisticated ennui of the song is hilariously met by Polly’s West Country accent – soon to be featured on the soundtrack to the Julian Schnabel film, Basquiat. ‘Dance Hall…’ is due out on September 23, and there may be a dance interpretation of the record next year, as choreographer Mark Bruce has already lined up a tour. As far as the music goes, Polly reckons: ‘I’ve got every kind of extreme in there…probably the most commercial song I’ve ever written and the most uncommercial song, too.’

© Vox

Review: Q   Date: September 1996
Spleen – Soundtrack To Spleen

Rob Ellis drummed in PJ Harvey’s original trio. Spleen is an imaginary movie soundtrack, a project that’s been festering since 92. Harvey sings on two tracks, giving her deepest, most mournful moan on the very miserable Daddy, backed by strings on the straight-from-the-asylum Rest Sextet. Other guests include her current collaborator John Parish and Gallon Drunk baritone saxophonist Terry Edwards.
Calling up an experimental tradition largely absent in the 90’s, Ellis splices electro-squiggles to hectic freeform rumbles. This fragmented avant cocktail jazz suggests an alleycat clawfight between the Lounge Lizards and Anthony Braxton, getting rockier for the deranged anti-astrology rant A Joint For Mre Soames. The shape-shifting Ellis slashes across this lowlife canvas with aggressive precision, always challenging as he minces genres.

Martin Longley © Q

Review: Select   Date: September 1996
Spleen – Soundtrack To Spleen

PJ Harvey’s brilliant drummer Rob Ellis departed a few years back, but obviously there were no hard feelings as Polly sings a few stunning cameos his longtime-coming solo project. Ellis plays every instrument he can get his hands on, sings and kind of narrates in this tangled up tale of drug-crazed love triangle. Terry Edwards (Gallon Drunk/Tindersticks) provides the blaring brass, while evil strings and piano help give it a feel of Trainspotting meets Tom Waits with a side order of ultraviolence. It’s impressive, but the problem is that overall it’s so dense and oppressive that listening to it feels like being trampled on by a big boot labelled ‘Art’. Perhaps he should do it as a rock opera. It knocks Tommy into a corner.

Mike Barnes © Select

Review: The Wire   Date: September 1996
Spleen – Soundtrack To Spleen

Medieval anatomists, correctly identifying the spleen as a reservoir of corporeal blood, also grafted onto that useful (though not indispensable) organ, some auxiliary attributes. The spleen became the seat of melancholy, of violent passion and impetuous action. And so it’s here where Rob Ellis, multi-instrumentalist and one-time drummer in the PJ Harvey group and Laika, comes in. Spleen, his recording project, and its attendant debut album, tidily entitled Soundtrack To Spleen, is a passionate, violent affair, telling the story of a sanguinary and savage triangular relationship. Cast as a soundtrack to an imaginary film (what else?), Ellis has used the external – here, a music that veers between impressionist influences, freeform jazz and some subtle string arrangements – to reflect an internal action. In its action and its narrative, the end result is delightfully disturbing: a crossover cull that seethes with edgy paranoia.

Ellis, a Somerset-based musician long associated with the coterie of musicians surrounding PJ Harvey (PJ actually appears on the record, as does guitarist John Parish, Ellis’s partner in erstwhile Yeovil group Automatic Dlamini; other notable collaborators include trumpeter Terry Edwards and string arranger Brendan Ashe), is intrigued by how Spleen’s narrative structure holds together so cogently. “It wasn’t envisaged at all” he says. “The record was made over a period of four years, starting off with some sessions with [recording engineer] Head, who had worked on the first Harvey album. In fact, the reason I used the ‘soundtrack’ word at all was because it gave me a way to use different types of material. Soundtracks are often compilations and I find it interesting to try to make links between the types of music they contain.” He is phlegmatic about possible links between his record and the imaginary soundtracks versioned by Barry Adamson and Portishead. “I’ve only heard one Adamson and it seems that he has an altogether tighter approach to structure than I’ve had. I was probably aiming for something much more abstract than [the record] actually is. In many ways it was a way to filter and explore music that I had been listening to. So although you can hear Kurt Weill or Miles Davis’s influence, these are not consciously included.”
Considering that intentionally has always occupied a place at the centre of any debate surrounding creative endeavour, this is somewhat disarming admission. What is it that a creator intends? What is his ur-text? Did it ever exist? Ellis, for his part, is open to the fact that others may impose radically disparate meanings on his own work. This is clear from the involvement of vocalist Tim Farthing, the man responsible for pulling Spleen’s parts into a film script and dividing its action – over a 24 hour span – into external and internal aspects. I happened, says Ellis, in an almost haphazard way. “Instead of writing the normal press release, Tim wrote a film script, with a view to actually filming it; that’s something we’re talking tentatively about. What he did is brilliant, but he must have seen something strange in the music to account for his interpretation.”

Further interpretations may yet be revealed. Ellis has not ruled out the possibility of Spleen live dates, although considering the scheduling involved, much will be governed by logistics. What is certain is that the next Spleen album, upon which work will begin in the new year, should take less time than its predecessor to see the light of day. How the splenetics of Ellis and cohorts reassemble themselves should make for fascinating viewing, imaginary movies or not.

Louise Gray © The Wire

Review: Venue   Date: August 1996
Spleen – Soundtrack To Spleen

Essentially a solo project by PJ Harvey’s Rob Ellis, it’s no surprise that this album boasts a starry guest list including Polly herself, John Parish and Tindersticks trumpet maestro Terry Edwards. What might surprise is the sheer breadth and extremity of the music, a kind of bluesy film noir opera woven from orchestral jazz, slithering strings, dishevelled saloon-bar blues and doomy cinematic moods. For the most part it’s a winning formula, with pianos, imploding in a wrenching Gallon Drunk style, saxophones honking and squawking their guts out, accordions reeling drunkenly and violins weeping uncontrollably. At it’s heart are dense, fractured narratives about sex, torture, madness, astrology and South American death ceremonies. Heavy, intense stuff. At it’s most ferocious, tunes like ‘Black Bullet Fiesta’ squall and scrunch and wail with the ravenous recklessness of Captain Beefheart with Tom Waits guesting on piano-smashing duties. At it’s most annoying, ‘Romanza Per Psychopathica’ dives into a howling cauldron of self-indulgent jazz-core meltdown cacophony. Imagine a dozen angry cats trying to play breakneck rockabilly. Ouch. Otherwise, though, this is a terrifically visceral, richly layered record from an intriguing gallery of dark stars.

Stephen Dalton © Venue

Review: NME   Date: August 1996
Spleen – Soundtrack To Spleen

Let’s face it, break-ups can ruin your life. So just how did Rob Ellis respond to being replaced as PJ Harvey’s drummer? On the evidence of his new album, it appears he went completely insane. In a musical sense, at least. Because this album is very much the sound of a man stuck in the darkest depths of Yeovil with a few things to ‘work out’.

‘Soundtrack To Spleen’ is the musical accompaniment to a film that was never made. Nothing particularly strange about hat, Barry Adamson’s made a whole career out of it. The subject matter of the film/music isn’t particularly unusual either: drug-fuelled love triangles are the stuff of suburban dreams. What is skin-crawlingly disturbing, however, is the sound of this record – and in particular, the way it makes you think of dribbling psychiatric patients.

From the outset, you have every right to be unsettled. A door clicks, feet shuffle and then comes a disembodied wail. That , it transpires is Polly Harvey playing a character called Mrs Soames. Just to show there’s no hard feelings between her and Rob, she mournfully sings something about wanting to hug her father. Read into that what you will. In the background, skew-whiff jazz bluster, a pervasive sense of paranoia and an uncomfortably dirty bass place us firmly in Birthday Party territory. Not a comfortable place to be in perhaps, but a vaguely recognisable one nevertheless.

It’s at this point, though, that things start to go badly wrong. It could be the withering self-criticism of the lyrics (‘[I’m a] blackening mass that hates and sh*** and peels and writhes’ screams Tim Farthing halfway through ‘Vulpine’), but more likely it’s the sudden musical descent into unlistenable jazz, hellish screeching, and violent outbreaks of coughing. Especially as Polly Harvey then delivers a chillingly detached murder plan accompanied solely by scraping violins. Time to take a break.

‘Soundtrack To Spleen’ owes a huge debt to Scott Walker’s ‘Tilt’, in the sense that it, too, gets under your skin and refuses to let you relax until you’re as tired, paranoid and possibly as crazy as the man who wrote it. ‘A Joint For Mrs Soames’ is the nadir, as all your favourite brass instruments career chaotically into one another, as Tim Farthing irrationally rants about his hatred for Every Single Zodiacal sign.

All of which makes ‘Soundtrack To Spleen’ both an interesting curiosity, as well as a perverse exercise in gross discomfort. It’s worth keeping in mind, however, that at heart this might just be Ellis’ idea of a sick joke. After all, the opening track is called ‘Wind Up’.

James Oldham © NME

Review: The Wire   Date: August 1996
Spleen – Soundtrack To Spleen

Taking it’s lead from Barry Adamson’s – or possibly Portishead’s – soundtracks for imaginary films, there is much to recommend Spleen’s unsettlingly atmospheric debut. No doubt some will focus most heavily on the presence of Polly Harvey (Rob Ellis, the heart of Spleen, is/was sometime drummer for Laika and Harvey’s group), and maybe construe some reasons for her current involvement in off-the-wall projects (her collaborative album with John Parish, also present here, follows in September). Fair enough: Polly Jean has some characteristically dark and psychotic moments to contribute, but Spleen’s humours go well beyond this.

For Ellis, a multi-instrumentalist with a deftly trained compositional talent, this faux-soundtrack is something of a labour of love. Recorded between 1992-96, it describes – in disturbing detail – a chemically-infused and crazy love triangle in tones which range from freeform jazz to lurid parlour music. The net result leaves the listener with the uneasy feeling of eavesdropping on events that should, for reasons of emotional continence, be kept private. There are some Beefheart influences, some Lounge Lizard touches, and the music is idiosyncratically and imaginatively orchestrated.

By appending ‘soundtrack’ to the title, Ellis seems to suggest that the music, by itself, is incomplete. It isn’t – as, hopefully, subsequent Spleen projects will show.

Louise Gray © The Wire

Review: Melody Maker   Date: August 1996
Spleen – Little Scratches

There is no film called ‘Spleen’. Of course not. There is no band called ‘Spleen’. Don’t be so naïve. This is the soundtrack to a state of mind, mapped out by Rob Ellis, who’s helped out by assorted musicians, including John ‘Don’t call me Mann’ Parish, the superbly strange Pooka, the brassy slut Terry Edwards, and a dirty-dozen-and-one others. Including, of course, PJ Harvey. It’s worth pointing out straight away that Polly has little more than a walk-on part – on one track her credit is simply ‘feet’ and on the two occasions she sings, she sounds uncannily like Lydia Lunch on ‘Queen of Siam’. If you’re looking for a Polly outtakes sampler, look elsewhere. This is Rob Ellis’s project.

And it’s less a concept album than the musical equivalent of a jigsaw puzzle with the wrong picture on the lid. You think you’re listening to a simple murder story, but in fact the slaying is an incidental detail in a hilarious account of one man’s slide into madness. Woman waits for lover. Husband discovers lover. Beats him up. Kills wife. Lover goes mad.

You get alternate versions of each track, some superb instrumental interludes that take pride in their debt to Nino Rota and Gerry Mulligan, and some of the most screamingly funny dialogue since Cave’s Murder Ballads.

There’s a dance that ends in carnage described in fantastical surreal pomp – ‘The guttering is pumping with the festive blood of millions, and the sound of cocking gun-hammers will resonate like lightning’ – like Mexican poetry translated by Dali instead of Beckett. The little story ‘3Ft Shy From Yesterday’ could have been written by John Cale, and sounds like it’s narrated by the one with a tin helmet in The Hair Bear Bunch. The accompanying filmscript is about as helpful as Eliot’s obfuscating notes o ‘The Wasteland’. Confused? Me too. Great, innit?

Mark Luffman © Melody Maker

Review: Daily Telegraph   Date: July 1996
Spleen – Soundtrack To Spleen
Traditionally, solo efforts from drummers have been as welcome as poison ivy cod-pieces. Yet former PJ Harvey skinsman Rob Ellis has produced a record that, in ambition at least, succeeds in wiping a thousand Ringo misadventures from memory.

Ostensibly a concept album that follows the twists and turns of an Ill-fated love triangle, Soundtrack To Spleen may be at times difficult to follow but frequently rewards as Ellis combines with horn player Terry Edwards to produce an atmospheric collision of rhythm and tortured narration.

It is, however, the contribution of Miss Harvey herself that impresses most, with the likes of ‘Daddy’ or ‘Rest Sextet’ finding the chanteuse at full terrifying stretch.

© Daily Telegraph