Formerly the lead axe man for the Coral (the once much hyped British rock band of sea-shanties and addictive pop melodies, for those who have forgotten), Bill Ryder-Jones recently set off on his own to make largely instrumental, atmospheric music of the kind appropriate for films scores. Ryder-Jones has followed his pleasant EP, A Leave Taking Soundtrack, with a full-length LP entitled If…, which his promotional material indicates he composed to pair with Italo Calvino’s late-20th century novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. To what extent If… corresponds to its literary inspiration is a question this listener (but not reader) is unprepared to answer. But the refined, rarely overbearing melancholy and the scattered bits of narrative-like melodic and harmonic development strewn throughout If… make it worthy in its own right, however well it may advertise its source work.
Ryder-Jones’s second life in the film score genre finds him drawing heavily upon piano and chamber style strings. Some of the compositions become dense without much hesitation. “The Reader (Malbork),” for instance, promptly offers waves of strings that eventually float above an undercurrent of looping piano riffs. Other pieces stretch out spaciously. A clean and slow but subtly varied piano number, “Leaning (Star of Sweden)” recalls Erik Satie, Harold Budd and ambient Brian Eno. Most often, the compositions of If… begin quietly and sparsely and crescendo to controlled climaxes of interwoven melodies and countermelodies. On the closing “Some Absolute End (The End),” Ryder-Jones plays variations on a piano theme for about four and half minutes before he seizes on a riff to repeat until the end, with only minor adjustments to its atmospheric adornments.
Here and there, Ryder-Jones sprinkles elements of ordinary pop-rock composition into his arrangements. He adds a few lines for voice to “By the Church of Appolonia,” and the beginning of “Leaning (Star of Sweden)” — though mostly for their timbre it seems. “Le Grande Disordre” is even a straight-ahead “song” — albeit only a low-key, hushed ballad for acoustic guitar. And “Enlace” propels itself forward with emphatic toms and detours by changing time signatures for a yelping electric guitar solo. Far from being liabilities, such disparate moments help define If… for the better: as a work that frolics in different directions without losing control or coherence.