The Light at the End of the Dial

Gagarin Records / GR2023 LP (2010)

“Vernon & Burns hark back to an earlier era of recorded sound, when novelty and comedy acts didn’t reach their use by date after five minutes of fame on the Internet, but managed to produce long-playing vinyl albums. Artefacts that subsequent generations of deejays rescued from thrift store bargain bins before cutting, scratching and manipulating them into new shapes and forms. The Light at the End of the Dial stands alongside with purveyors of a skewed form of electronica such as Stock, Hausen & Walkman, Wevie Stonder and People Like Us.

Vernon & Burns have quite an impressive oeuvre of sound making prior to this release on Felix Kubin’s Gagarin Records label. Starting out in 1999 with Radio Tuesday, an artist-run radio station in Glasgow skirting around the borders of soundscapes, documentaries, poetry and experimental music, they have moved on to enlighten and baffle such cultural institutions as WFMU, Resonance FM and the BBC with their radio plays and kitchen sink dramas.

On The Light at the End of the Dial, ‘Sinister Whimsy’ is a term that kept coming to mind. A case in point is the sad, disembodied voice of a young man that sounds uncannily like Peanuts’ Charlie Brown on Residual Values (It’s a Yes Man’s Life), “All he does is work, all he cares about is money. He doesn’t care about you, me or anyone.” Tip-tapping typewriters, the hum of a busy office, and frantic percussion seem to comment on our current obsessions without passing judgement. In Here Come The Intangibles, a free-jazz outfit stop in to unblock a sink for a distressed neighbour. The Night we Invented Forgetting comes on all loungey, with crooned evocations to a sadly absent loved one, complete with a backing of kid’s xylophone, Martin Denny textures and slamming doors.

The Last Lamppost’s beautifully eerie whistling refrain is slowly fleshed out by found sounds (creaky, of course) and a demented orchestra with only broken instruments to amuse themselves with. Spontaneous Adverse Experience Report reminds me of two grown men fighting over a game of Frogger, only to have Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic workshop join in to score the carnage. And if Vernon & Burns really are slighted lovers, no one can help them; as is evidenced by the insanely jealous psychic dis-ease of Naughty Boy.

If your tastes in comedy are dark and resolutely Britsh, and you aren’t averse to mixing that slapstick urge with a distinctly rubbery brand of cod-surrealism, The Light at the End of the Dial may be just that.”

(Oliver Laing, Cyclic Defrost)

“… mini-hörspiels: antique electronics, field recordings, sounds lifted from movies, collages slicing honky-tonk piano with old-school 8-bit video game music, nods to the golden age of musique concrète, etc. …creative madness being the unifying factor. It’s a bit messy, wild, but you can clearly hear a serious artistic process behind the mask of burlesque.
Plunderphonic cabaret concrète! Great stuff.”

(Monsieur de Lire, Journal d’écoute)

“Another delight from these Glaswegian creators whose work I unfailingly enjoy… V&B create short vignettes which are very like surreal radio plays, using fragments of spoken word, music and sound effects and putting them together in ingenious constructions. I always assume that each compacted gem of creation takes weeks of hard work to assemble, producing less than two minutes of sparkling joy, but perhaps I’m wrong. What I always enjoy is that one is never tempted to try and disaggregate their many sources, and instead enjoy these witty and eccentric pieces for what they are, with each surprising combination opening another doorway in their absurdist dolls house. One of my personal favourite moments on this album occurs on “While My Pretty One Sleeps”, where among a series of near-random dreamlike elements one suddenly hears the sound of billiard balls, apparently recorded in a pool hall in Warsaw. It’s a perfect touch, placing V&:B in 1930s Britain, wearing evening dress and sipping sherries while listening to the BBC home service. Somewhere between People Like Us and The Ghost Box label they might lie, but are not as sardonic as the former nor as specific as the other in choosing the targets of their pastiche.

On this particular release, even the packaging is in on the joke (and there aren’t that many records, outside of the early Monty Python LPs, which have pulled this off with any success); the tracks are described on the back cover, then described again on the inner sleeve; each description takes a different tack (one describes the method, the other the content) and they seem to contradict each other in the middle. Of course none of this prose is really serious, and these clipped two-line capsule descriptions (similar to TV program descriptions you may have once read on Ceefax, if you remember that) are compacted, witty and bizarre in ways that match the music. Vernon and Burns would have made ideal contributors to a TV show like Look Around You, but they would have dominated it and walked away with the prize.”

(Ed Pinsent, Sound Projector)