BRISTOL, LIKE Manchester, was once synonymous with nervy, wired, dark white funk – The Pop Group, Rip Rig & Panic. Then the drugs changed (skunk, not speed), the pace slooooowed, and Bristol gave us the downtempo holy trinity (Massive Attack, Portishead, Tricky) with their inchoate, muggy, fuzzy trip hop. A new sort of dread. A different kind of tension.
Alpha emerged from this scene in the mid-Nineties. They are Andy Jenks, a 34-year-old ex-member of a Newport punk band, and Corin Dingley, at 28 a veteran of the folk circuit. Vocals are supplied by Helen White, Wendy Stubbs and, most strikingly, Martin Barnard. They have recorded two albums of sombre beauty – where torch songs and orchestral ambience melt into one another – for Massive’s Melankolic label.
Alpha have recently been courted by some of the biggest names in pop. First, their 1997 debut album Come From Heaven drew praise from David Bowie and Radiohead’s Colin Greenwood, while its highlight, ‘Sometime Later’, got used on a US sit-com, two French movies, a French TV car ad and Chris Morris’ Jam – the sketch “where Richard Madeley fucks a coffee machine”.
Then Madonna proclaimed Alpha’s 1998 mini-LP Pepper the Album Of The Year in Rolling Stone. A meeting was arranged by their respective managers “in a London mansion with Picassos on the wall. We were shitting ourselves,” they recall, although Andy, who collects secondhand vinyl soundtracks by Morricone, Legrand, Barry et al, maintains he would have been more nervous had it been Burt Bacharach lying at their feet. La Ritchie spent two hours listening to Alpha’s demos before reluctantly giving the job of overseeing her Music project to Mirwais and William Orbit.
Alpha were blase about their brush with mega-wealth, immediately focusing on their second album of dramatic silence (The Impossible Thrill) and a recording with Jarvis Cocker of Jimmy Webb’s ‘This Is Where I Came In’ for their new EP, South, complete with string arrangement recorded at Abbey Road. Such sumptuous sadness comes naturally to Alpha. “The miserable, grey Bristol weather affects our mood,” explains Dingley. His partner considers the matter of their melancholy. “Our music does make us cry,” admits Jenks, peering wistfully through the bistro window towards the Bristol Channel. “Mainly because we’ve heard it so much.”
© Paul Lester, Uncut, June 2001