Graded on a Curve:
Kate St. John,
Second Sight

If one is familiar with The Dream Academy, then one is familiar with Kate St. John, even if her name rings no bells of recognition. But to focus upon her contribution to that group is to give her considerable short shrift, as she’s a multi-instrumentalist, composer, arranger, producer, and musical director. Along with membership in the New Age art-pop supergroup Channel Light Vessel, she also issued two solo records in the ’90s. Second Sight was the second and best, and it’s making its vinyl debut on double 180-gram clear wax. Remastered by Tim Story, with a high-resolution art print, the limited edition of 500 is available now through Curious Music.

Before she was in The Dream Academy, Kate St. John was one of The Ravishing Beauties with Virginia Astley and Nicky Holland. Noted for live shows with The Teardrop Explodes, their only recording is an April 14, 1982 Peel Session, though one of the songs, “Futility,” which was adapted from a poem by Wilfred Owen, did turn up on a New Musical Express tape sampler. The whole thing’s hosted on Astley’s website, providing a cool listen that lends insight into what St. John was up to before “Life in a Northern Town.”

The Dream Academy were more than that song (their biggest hit in ’85), releasing three albums in fact, but more pertinent to this review is what came after. Along with playing oboe and sax on a series of Van Morrison’s ’90s albums, she recorded The Familiar with Roger Eno, a collaboration that led directly to the formation of Channel Light Vessel. Featuring St. John, Eno, Bill Nelson, Laaraji, and Mayumi Tachibana, they released two discs, The Automatic in 1994 and Excellent Spirits in ’96 (the second without Tachibana).

The stature of the participants establishes Channel Light Vessel as a supergroup, and the lack of hubbub over their output might suggest they failed in meeting expectations. This isn’t borne out by listening, as both discs have their moments, though there is more than a hint of an ambiance this writer associates with ’80s high-end stereo culture, particularly with The Automatic. From the vantage point of 2018 (and the years chalked up getting here), this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

St. John’s ’95 solo debut Indescribable Night won’t be placed into any sort of arty post-New Age category however, as it instead consists of Euro cabaret pop with occasional jazzy flourishes blended with chamber music. It’s an enjoyable disc, if at times a bit studied, an issue that’s corrected with the relaxed range of its follow-up.

Originally issued on CD by All Saints Records, Second Sight was recorded in London and Paris in ’97 with St. John on oboe, cor anglais, French horn, saxophone, piano, and accordion with a load of accompanists including Roger Eno on piano, Sergey Schurakov on accordion, and Russian pop-star Boris Grebenshikov on vocals and guitar, along with his band Aquarium and the Paris-based group Alhambra.

Co-produced with St. John by Joseph Rocaille and engineered by Jerry Boys, the record’s a full sophisto-pop meal with inflections of folk and chamber hues, the whole avoiding preciousness through the strength of St. John’s compositional and arranging skills, plus the warmth of her singing, which maintains a high standard throughout.

She sets a striking tone in opener “Don’t They Know You’ve Gone,” but the real treat is the richness of the composition, which for a few moments at the outset is mildly orchestrally reminiscent of Van Dyke Parks. But at about 90 seconds in, as the vocals pause, there’s a splendid short instrumental progression reinforcing that St. John isn’t retracing anyone’s footsteps; from there, her voice and the instrumentation interweave to fine effect.

“Where the Warm Winds Blow” immediately changes the pace, offering a slice of ’60’s gal pop with injections of pedal steel (an instrument previously employed on Indescribable Night) amid a blossoming chamber veneer and a duration that exceeds expectations. “Songs and Silhouettes” scales back, largely consisting of voice, piano, vibes, and intermittent reeds, while the song, if undeniably pop, resists gravitating toward a certain style.

Well, other than “classic,” anyway. For “A Flicker of Gold,” her vocal collab with Grebenshikov, the accordions assert their presence, and the mood is akin to village folk given a subtle but sturdy pop tweaking. From there, “Fireworks” brings another highlight of advanced arranging, and then “Notti Senza Amore,” which St. John states was inspired by Nino Rota, easily succeeds in conjuring thoughts of a Fellini-esque scene, slowly unwinding in vibrant color.

“My Lonely Love” unfurls as ethereal jazz-pop, and with “A Foolish Dance,” those accordions take a left turn into Tex-Mex territory, though the slide guitar of the late (and intriguing) Cyril Lefebvre has a Hawaiian feel. Next, “J’Attendrai” visits Lefebvre’s home country for a nifty serving of chanson that’s not a bit overdone (with her vocal counterpart here producer Rocaille).

“Dark Heavens” again utilizes a wide array of instrumental color, including cello, bassoon, French horn, double bass, Eno on piano, and St. John on alto sax as the composition helps Second Sight to elude pigeonholing. “Dreaming Spires” finds St. John switching to oboe for a short and pretty non-vocal duet with Eno at the bench, and then she’s back at the mic for the amiable glide of “Colonel Sinnott’s Song of Love,” which brings the album to a close.

Curious Music’s deluxe reissue sheds loving light on a disc that was surely overlooked upon first release. It instills an urge to check out more, but sadly St. John’s solo recordings stop with this one. Not that her career has stalled; she’s been seriously busy, but based on the strides she made with this album, it’d be great news to hear she’s returning to the studio with a batch of fresh compositions. If not, then Second Sight will more than adequately suffice for the long haul.


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