Convincing Irish electronica records, like Penny Black stamps, are a real rarity. While most artists of recent years can't be faulted for trying (Si Schroeder, take a bow), there simply hasn't been an outstanding experimental album in recent memory. John Lambert, the man who uses Chequerboard as a pseudonym for his musical project (he's also a visual artist and producer) may not have created a bona fide masterpiece with his third release, but it certainly comes close on occasion.
Abandoning the egotistic self-indulgence and feigned intellect that's rife in the ambient/electronica genre (it's only 34 minutes long, for one thing), Penny Black instead favours a stripped-down, inherently beautiful acoustic backbone that's fleshed out with a playful piano twinkle here, or a cheeky, understated bleep there.
These songs are some of the most evocative you'll hear all year without a lyrics sheet. Ornithopter, for example, uses the crackle and flare of a lit match to superb effect, transporting you to a warm fire on a freezing day; The Winter Arcade's pretty resilience takes you to a small cottage by a raging, blustery sea; 20th Century Artillery soundtracks a walk through a walled Mediterranean town as the sun sets, and Skating Couple's hollow skitter is a burst of cherry blossoms over an icy pond. Above all else, though, Lambert is a talented guitarist, deft of finger and brimming with ideas.
Penny Black sounds so natural, so unforced and so organic that it's almost as if its tracks have always been there, just waiting for the right hands to dig them out of the damp clay. Imbued with a quiet optimism, but never pretension, this is one of the loveliest instrumental albums you're likely to hear in 2008.