The Eccentronic Research Council and Maxine Peake – 'Magpie Billy and the Egg That Yolked' album review

With its wry Northern storytelling and creepy analogue synths, the ERC's second album with Peake is an eccentric masterpiece

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

Homesick Northerner? The Eccentronic Research Council’s new album should be just the tonic. Like mainlining a post-watershed ‘Coronation Street’, ‘Magpie Billy and the Egg That Yolked (A Study of the Northern Ape in Love)’ is a celebration of Northernness in all its droll, pathos-filled, Rich Tea glory.

The ERC are experimental sound design duo Adrian Flanagan and Dean Honer, and their Kraftwerk-indebted sound bears all the markings of a pair of record nerds who would happily talk you through the history of analogue over a pint of ale. ‘Magpie Billy…’ is the pair’s second electronic concept album with Maxine Peake, the actress and national treasure-in-waiting, whose pitch-perfect Boltonian spoken word spins out economical tales of love, life and change in the working-class North of England.

Flanagan and Honer’s ominous keyboard marches and snaking synth lines (plus sporadic sound effects, and crazed percussion by guest drummer Ross Orton) set the scene perfectly for a twisted, surrealist tale of domestic chaos and cartoonish horror. On ‘First Floor of the Misery Ladder’, ghost train-style bloops escalate and samples of cooing birds rise in intensity until the track takes a turn for the Hitchcockian.

But it’s Peake’s narration and Flanagan’s prose that are the real heart of ‘Magpie Billy…’. An Alan Bennett-esque character study of two types of modern male, both residing in a world of bric-à-brac and Pot Noodles, the album insistently finds beauty and tragedy in the mundane. Moments of heartbreaking tenderness are followed up by bleak understatement, as on ‘The Late Mrs MB’: ‘They said he died of a broken heart, but it was probably brought on by high cholesterol from having to cook for himself.’

Like ‘Corrie’, ‘Magpie Billy’ comes in at just half an hour and rewards your full attention. The ERC and Maxine Peake are bravely keeping the great Northern storytelling tradition alive – and they’re doing it with poetry, cool synths and observational humour delivered as only a true grim-up-Northerner can.

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