December 1997, Oculus Magazine
I spoke with Allison Shaw, singer, bass player and occasional guitarist of Cranes, on Halloween evening. The day had started gloomy and full of fog, but opened up into a beautiful, brilliant Maryland fall afternoon. It reminded me of Cranes' music: harsh, dark beginnings often leading up to a gorgeous moment of musical and lyrical epiphany. I took time during the day to fully immerse myself in my personal collection of Cranes music, starting with 1991's Wings of Joy straight on through 1997's EP Collection Volumes 1 & 2. The new release is a collection covering over seven EPs and LPs, including tracks from 1989's impossible-to-find Self Non Self, their 1996 mock film score, The Tragedy of Orestes and Electre. Two hidden tracks, "Slide," and a live version of perennial crowd favorite "Starblood," round out the two-disc collection.
Allison's brother Jim Shaw is a fellow Crane, playing guitar, bass and keyboards. In 1996 Manu Ross took over Jim's former drum duties. Mark Francombe plays bass, keyboards and guitar. With every band member covering every instrument, they have a versatility that lends well to extremely harsh, sonically experimental music, as well as to delicate, drifting arrangements of classical guitar and keyboards. But when you say "Cranes" to a fan, probably the first thing they'll mention is Allison Shaw's extraordinary voice, lilting, occasionally unintelligible but always dramatic. Allison's voice is a pale flame, tremblingly speaking of darkness, light and love.
Once I got over my initial fear of speaking to her, Allison proved incredibly kind and easy to talk to. I asked what the band was up to in late 1997. "We're really just doing some demos, writing a bit. We played a few dates in Mexico in September. That was really fun. But, really, we're not planning to do any more shows for a while, not until we've done another album."
Cranes has taken on a few eclectic side projects over the last few years, including the strange "film score" (The Tragedy of Orestes and Electre ) based on a Jean-Paul Sartre novel. Allison said, "Over the last two years, we've gotten more involved in music for films. We're working on a new film project (actually, I just got off the line with a publicist) but that's mostly Jim's work because I've only got to sing on a couple of tracks. I sometimes fiddle about, write some things...but we're holed up a lot, when we're not recording or on tour. Mark is actually living in Norway with his girlfriend these days. So we're sort of having a vacation, because we really don't need to be together. That's just how it is. We just spent five months together. We've been together since 1989, so we do appreciate our space."
What about Manu, I asked? Rumor had it that he had left the band after the '97 tour, but he was present at the shows in Mexico this past September. "Well, he's a bit temperamental... ," Allison said. "He wasn't sure what he wanted to do after the tour ended this summer, but he ended up coming to Mexico with us."
I think the addition of a full-time drummer, rather than programmed drum tracks, or Jim switching between drum and guitars, has been good for the band. Population Four, which was released in early 1997, took a simpler path than more gothic, dense, earlier works. Even the name of the album reflects a different sense than, albums like Loved and Forever.
"One of the main things that affected Population Four was having Manu join us as a live drummer. We've often used drum machinesalthough they might not sound like drum machineson our recordings. Jim just preferred to use sampled drums sometimes. But we went to a much more live feeling (when we recorded Population Four), and we decided to use simple things like acoustic and classical guitars as well."
Allison noted that although the band liked the current sound, they were always experimenting. "I couldn't really say what the next record may be like. It could be totally different from our past offerings. What we've been working on (so far) has been continuing in the acoustic feel, but we're also going in the entirely opposite direction and doing something much more electronic and experimental. We do tend to go to extremes, sometimes."
Direction in the band comes mainly from Jim. Allison said, "Usually, Jim and I work on things in the studio together. We've always had recording equipment in our home. We've often developed things on our own, then brought it to the group before we play it live. I think, having completed that (Orestes and Electre), we acted against it. Since Orestes and Electre was done so much in a studio atmosphere, Population Four was a nice change."
According to the press, Cranes recorded Population Four very quickly, in about four weeks. I asked if Allison and the group were pleased with the results.
"Well, it (how we record) changes with every record. On Population Four, maybe it was a bit more of a group effort; we all recorded together in one place. Population Four is an exception, as we recorded it basically live, without so many studio effects, and with everyone present... It took us longer to write that album than others, maybe. We spent some time in advance getting stuff together, but once we finished a track we recorded it rather quickly."
Since the Cranes' inception in 1989, Jim Shaw has been the group's primary songwriter. Allison said, "Well, if it's an acoustic piece, often we'll start out with just the words, or a few notes. If it's more of a bass and drum piece, we usually start with a rhythm. I can't really say how Jim writes things. He's like a law unto himself. He just kind of disappears for a while, goes a bit odd, and turns up a few days later with some songs."
Allison laughed when I asked if the rumors portraying Jim as a "dark genius" were true: "Jim has his own ideas. He usually comes up with the musical parts of songs, unless someone else comes up with something that he can't deny is good. And then he'll accept it. If he thinks you've done something very good, he'll certainly incorporate it. But if not, it's got to be what he wants."
Despite Jim's representation as the driving creative force in the band, Allison is often portrayed as an "elfin enchantress," the fans' center of attention in the band, the calm in the center of the storm. It's certainly a believable image. Her voice floats out above the swirl of primal drums, arcing violins, and ominous, delicate melodies.
I wondered, how do the other band members react to this image? Allison had already mentioned that she thought the support they got from fans was "really great." But do any of the other band members get jealous of the attention being given to her?
"Oh, that? They (the rest of the band) laugh at me. That kind of thing I do get a bit embarrassed about. But when it's (fans' adoration) someone reacting to a song, be it the lyrics or the music, then we really appreciate it. It's why we carry on."
Reviewed by Brandi Berry
© Oculus December 1997