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25 October 2019updated 25 Jul 2021 7:14am

Anna Meredith’s FIBS merges pop, classical and electronica with a playful wink

Meredith started out playing the clarinet in local Edinburgh wind bands. I wonder if she imagined then that she’d use the instrument to make music as unrelentingly fun as this.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

There is a segment on Lauren Laverne’s BBC 6 Music radio show called “House Music”. Listeners send in recordings of household appliances that sound like well-known songs, a vacuum cleaner that is strangely reminiscent of the opening of Chic’s “Good Times”, for example, or a fridge which plays the opening notes to “Live and Let Die”. It’s a charming way of reminding us, first thing in the morning, that, however clichéd it might sound, music really is everywhere – and can be formed of anything.

This feature comes to mind when I listen to Anna Meredith’s music, and more so than ever before on FIBS, her second studio album, out today via Moshi Moshi Records. It’s not that I can easily match any of the sounds on this record with items lying around my house – that would be far too distracting for me, and too simplistic for a composer of this calibre – but that the way in which Meredith manipulates sounds feels warm and familiar. Her work breaches pop, classical and electronica, fusing genres with ease. The classical elements of her work are never imposing; and unlike electronic artists who use their medium as a way of expanding sonic possibilities to make songs which sound intergalactic, Meredith’s work feels very much of this world.

That’s the familiarity with which FIBS plays out. Because “fibs” are only tiny, everyday things – little lies you tell to avoid upsetting people, teeny untruths which bring a naughtiness you can’t resist. You can hear that sense of mischievousness in the brilliant brassy opening of “Bump”, which parps and slides with clownish drama. It’s there, too, in the playful two-part harmony of “Divining” and its short and spiky vocal syllables. The song catapults forwards into a bright fist-pumping number – the kind you listen to jumping up and down with your best friends, hands held tight.

In her 20-year career, FIBS is only Meredith’s second album proper. Much of her work has come in the form of scores she’s written for other people to play – orchestras, or ensembles. She was the first female composer commissioned by the BBC for both the First and Last Night of the Proms, and the piece she composed for the latter, 2008’s “froms”, was broadcast to 40 million people. Away from the concert hall, Meredith’s work has had a practical sensibility too: she wrote the soundtrack to Bo Burnham’s critically acclaimed film Eighth Grade, the killer chromaticism of “Nautilus” making an unforgettable accompaniment to an epic pool-party scene; for Manchester International Festival, she wrote music for an art installation set in the lifts between M&S and Selfridges. Meredith knows what to inject into music for it to come alive. 

If all of these practices sound disparate, that’s because Meredith doesn’t seem to be able to sit still. On FIBS, she chops and changes between melodies with an unbridled relentlessness, and her live shows bounce around with just the same fervour. On Thursday night, when she launches FIBS to a small crowd gathered in the New Wing of London’s Somerset House – just one floor up from the venue’s artists’ studios, where she wrote and recorded much of the record – she’s elated. “I’m having to wipe my face with my own velvet shroud,” she says, sweaty after bounding around the stage, spinning between clarinet, glockenspiel, vocals and electronics. She is accompanied by a four-piece band – comprising electric guitar, cello, drums and tuba. 

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Meredith’s music is defined by its plural rhythms. What makes “Inhale Exhale” feel so desperately urgent is the way Meredith’s vocal line sounds to be working against the beat. “You say you’re dancing in the deep end but to me it looks like drowning,” Meredith sings, emphasising the rhythm so as not to let it escape her. Even more masterful are the frenetic cross-rhythms of “Paramour”, which bite and latch onto the force of the music, before slipping away to give in to a tremendous tuba melody, which has a different pulse all together.

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When I try to pinpoint why FIBS feels so tangible, I think about the way Meredith’s smart rhythms and unlikely instrumentation sit alongside each other. There’s something charming about the mismatched physicality of each of these instruments existing together, outside of their expected environments – brass band, rock group or orchestra. “moonmoons”, the most spacey of all the tracks on FIBS, retains little glimmers of another world, but needs the earthy wealth of the cello to bring it back down to reality. Meredith started out playing the clarinet in local Edinburgh wind bands. I wonder if she imagined then that she’d use the instrument to make music as unrelentingly fun as this.

There’s a fantastic light show in the vaults at the Somerset House gig, with bright laser beams coming out in rays from the back of the stage in greens, pinks and blues. At one point, one of the beams hits the side of the tuba, and the light is refracted back off it, the physicality of the instrument disrupting the electronica by its very presence.