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No Handshake Blues by Irma Vep
Restless North West musician Edwin Stevens releases a fine new album under his Irma Vep alter-ego
I first came across Irma Vep on the tiny stage of Newcastle's Cumberland Arms, on a bill with Kiran Leonard and Richard Dawson. It was a breathtaking, intense performance from an opening act, and one that would have stolen the show on any other night, but Dawson and Leonard are also masters of their own domain so i'd probably call it a three way tie in terms of show theft.
Irma Vep is the stage/band name of Edwin Stevens, a prolific musician on the North West music scene. He also plays in Sex Hands, Klaus Kinski, Desmadrados Soldados De Ventura, Yerba Mansa, he runs a tape label, promotes gigs in Manchester and regularly collaborates with the aforementioned Kiran Leonard. To be honest it's exhausting just to think about it. A pessimist would think that he's spreading himself too thin, but if this album is anything to go by, that notion can go straight out of the window.
No Handshake Blues manages to capture the fiery, focused nature of his full band live performances whilst also including some introspective moments that are more suited to the studio format. The opening two tracks on the album sum up these two elements of Irma Vep perfectly. "A Woman’s Work Is Never Done" is foreboding right from the get-go with an eerie bell toll making way for a slow combination of crunching guitar stabs, haunted strings, freewheeling sax and bass and a steady, doomsy beat. For anyone who's seen Irma Vep play live, this track will not come as a surprise. It's typically brilliant. "It Runs Slow" on the other hand, well that's a different story. A slowly picked guitar intro (reminiscent of a pre-Rock n Roll teen ballad) is complemented by Steven's fractured voice and some occasional beautifully manipulated strings. From track three (the free form interlude "Plod") you start to realise that Irma Vep doesn't really subscribe to the notion of genre. This is a record that will challenge and placate in equal measure. There's charming knockabout ditties that sound like demos ("Hey, You!"), country-tinged compositions in the vein of Michael Gira's Angels of Light ("I Want To Be Degraded") and powerful spine tingling tracks that border on Arcade Fire style epics ("You Know I've Been Ill"). The interesting thing about some of these changes in direction is that they rarely break the four minute mark. It's as if Steven's struggles to focus on one idea, preferring instead to experiment. This may be detrimental to the album in terms of flow, but it's compensated for in unshackled passion and unpredictability.
The record can also be a strangely uplifting. Strangely because, if you go by the lyrical content, specifically the song titles, you'd be hard pushed to find much joy in there. But on album closer "Still Sorry" (and a few others) Stevens is backed by a commanding string section, albeit a slightly mutated/distorted version of one, and it's a fittingly beautiful end to a thoroughly absorbing new album.