Land Observations is the alias of James Brooks, previously a member of the Krautrock-inspired post-rock trio Appliance. Some of that band’s Teutonic spirit has survived into this project, as his second album, The Grand Tour, moves with a mechanical, metronomic precision that Brooks refers to as “pastoral motorik.”
That said, there’s something very British about this record, too. Opening track “On Leaving the Kingdom for the Well-Tempered Continent” is reminiscent of the songs written by Freddie Phillips for Gordon Murray’s 1970s children’s television series Trumpton, Chigley and Camberwick Green. Other tracks on the entirely instrumental album are similar to the kind of incidental music played between educational programs for schools in the same era.
By echoing this half-remembered, culturally specific past, The Grand Tour chimes in with the hauntological output of the Ghost Box label over the past decade. Where it differs is in Brooks’s desire to take the listener on a journey beyond Britain’s shores. Recorded in a studio overlooking the Bavarian Alps, this is a sort of European travelogue, the title a reference to the traditional Grand Tour of European art treasures undertaken by wealthy young aristocrats in the 18th century. The tracks feature references to Flemish roads, Viennese streets, the Simplon Pass, the Brenner Pass, Turin and Ravenna.
However, we’re not in the realms of exploratory rock. There’s never a millisecond of syncopation, just the mellifluous sound of a studiously plucked guitar, played at the stately pace of a clock. It feels ordered, benign, predictable.
There’s a lot of musical geography happening at the moment (the latest albums by Lucky Elephant and Yann Tiersen, to name but two), and Brooks has prior form: His 2012 debut, Roman Roads IV-XI, was inspired by Britain’s historical highways.
There’s an argument that, by spelling out the meaning of these instrumentals, Brooks is limiting the value of his music: We can only enjoy it when imagining the landscape he’s mapped out for us. But the reality is that the mind meanders involuntarily into different settings entirely. The music is only a catalyst, the starting point of another journey. Just like the Grand Tour.