Omar Rodríguez-López is famously prolific, so I knew at some point during this project that my to-review list would increase; my only surprise was that it wasn’t sooner. The Clouds Hill Tapes Parts I, II & III were released during Summer Lockdown: Original Recipe, at the point when I was finally working again after a winter and spring spent wading through a treacly redundancy-based depression and its resultant brokeness. As such, I was desperate to throw money at culture the very instant it was possible and couldn’t throw it hard or fast enough at this vinyl boxset. 

It’s entirely worth the bell, presented in a luxe format including 10 monochrome prints taken during the recording session at the eponymous Clouds Hill Studio. The material is comprised of newly arranged songs from Roman Lips, Umbrella Mistress, Weekly Mansions, Killing Tingled Lifting Retreats, Arañas en la Sombra, Sworn Virgins, Blind Worms, Pious Swine, Solid State Mercenaries, and Corazones, plus two new tracks “It All Begins With You” and “Born To Be A Nobody”. It’s evident that a lot of thought was given to the idea of a physical product, and this loving attention to detail is apparent in the shop’s description of the sleeve artwork: The artwork is a photograph of the original tape used for the session….even the unwinding tape is real! It took two days to photograph it like this. The cardboard slipcase features three cut outs (in the photo of the tape reel) like those tape reels have. So if you slip the vinyl in, the grooves create the illusion of wound tape. As far as I’m aware, all the original Ipecac recordings were only released digitally, so I find this focus on the physical tapes weirdly touching, and this extends to the digital versions, with each EP cover depicting the tape in various stages of un/rewind. 

These new arrangements also feature a significant personnel shake-up from the originals; aside from Marcel R-L on bass and keyboards, all other musicians are making their debut on an ORL joint: vocalist Virginia García Alvez, drummer Audrey Paris Johnson, and Leo Genovese on piano and keyboards. The production is incredibly glossy and softly flowing, like silk pyjamas swishing across satin sheets, with the focus on Virginia’s stellar vocals as the main instrument. 

Part I utilises a strong undercurrent of wavery, almost drunken synths woven throughout that act as a kind of foil to the overall slickness of the production, capably introduced with “Roman Lips”. “Fool So Bleak” removes both the indefinite article from the title and the dodgy lyric I grumped about (it’s been changed to ‘‘oh yes I did / I made her lose her cool’) and is a definite improvement. The third recorded version of “Arcos Del Amor” sits somewhere between the frenetic energy on Arañas en la Sombra and the roiling broodiness of “Cassando La Luna” / “Oro” from Killing Tingled Lifting Retreats, a glassy surface with fewer clashing colours in the overall kaleidoscope of sound. “To Kill A Chi Chi” is less vocally compact than Teri Gender Bender’s, all the better to showcase some of her weirder lyrics (and that truly is saying something).

The main issue I find is that on tracks that have a particularly special place in my heart, I will always prefer the original. Virginia’s vocals have a marble-esque quality; smooth but also cold and hard, injecting some emotional distance. “Houses Full Of Hurt”, my arbitrarily decided All Time Favourite ORL song, suffers from this distance, and although there is nothing that can be faulted musically, I will always prefer the sob-inducing power of the original. “Science Urges”, without the breathy blend of Teri and Omar’s sensual duetting, just doesn’t get me in my squidgy parts. 

“Bitter Tears” is by far and away my favourite track from Part I with its perfect blend of wonky synths and funky, understated guitar. The judicious use of repetition, insisting ‘you never gave me a real choice’ doesn’t lose its urgency. A good deal of my love is with the medium-cut shred on the outro, which is always my first pull to any ORL track. Yet it’s the honesty present in a breakup song that isn’t, despite the title, terribly bitter, just candid when facing the unfairness of a failed relationship and its ensuing numbness. 

Part II ducks into an elegant piano to shake things up a little, alternating funky pop with “Vanishing Tide” and “Through Wires” and the wistful solipsism of “Eastern Promises”. The atmosphere is lush and thick on “We Feel the Silence”, each line landing heavily on the hearts of the mourners it describes. “Killing Out”, another truncated title from Solid State Mercenaries’ “Killing Out the Special Tide” packs the biggest punch, and although I’ve never actually been in a piano bar, I’m confident Gig Talker is present at every damn one*, and this song would be the one to make even the most obnoxious chatterer stop in the middle of their sentence, mouth agape, tears streaming down their face.

However, it’s “Diamond Teeth” that wins the gong for my favourite track. I loved the sleazy ambience of the original, but Virginia takes this to another level altogether. This is no shade on ORL’s rounded, ironic vocals on the original, but she’s absolutely fucking slaying this. The trippy piano uplifts a far more credible promise ‘to prove I’m sorry’. Her double-backed vocals close out this very meta song about sad songs bringing hope and summarises the motifs of gentle yearning felt across the EP.

The ambience is lighter on Part III, with considerable space given between notes and lyrics and significantly altered textures. “Winter‘s Gone” trades handclaps for finger-clicks and autumnal velvet suavity for the promise of fresh summer linen. The tragicomedy “Running Away” is less tongue-in-cheek indiepop without the light baggage of that version’s video attached. “Paint Yourself a Saint” and “Tell Me What I Did Wrong” are much closer to straight-up covers than re-arrangements, both perfectly cromulent.

The first time I heard “It All Begins With You”, its sheer beauty forced me to stop the track for a minute for some important blubbing. This is a song that’s steeped in mourning, yet still hopeful in layers of increasing intensity, vocals the loving heartbeat to the music, as when breathing in tandem in the arms of your lover or the pure, unconditional love we dream that is within reach, just not quite yet. I find it impossible not to think of it as a totem for the love and care given to all aspects of this production.

“Born to Be a Nobody”, a new song much in the same vein as “Still Nobodies” from Roman Lips and “Nobodies” from A Lovejoy, would have been the ideal closer for the project. Then again, I also think The Mars Volta should have swapped “The Requisition” with “Collapsible Shoulders” to conclude; in both cases it’s a minor peccadillo. I’m genuinely in awe of how this relatively new band has created a sublime showstopper of an album that sounds as though they’ve been together for years. Are you kidding? It’s like buttah. Each song is like a stick of buttah. That album is on the Land O Lakes label. It’s to die for. 

Excuse me, I’m getting a little verklempt – talk among yourselves.

*Who is this person? Why is this person? The Luminaire back in the day, come baaaack!

Track listing:
Part I
Roman Lips
Bitter Tears
Houses Full of Hurt
Science Urges
Fool So Bleak
Arcos Del Amor
To Kill A Chi Chi

Part II
Diamond Teeth
Vanishing Tide
Eastern Promises
Through Wires
Killing Out
We Feel the Silence

Part III
Winter‘s Gone
It All Begins With You
Running Away
Paint Yourself a Saint
Born To Be A Nobody
Tell Me What I Did Wrong