Wednesday, March 18, 2009


For reasons that would require a book rather than a quick filler review piece on a music blog, the PR arm of the music business likes a female singer and songwriter (not a singer-songwriter, that's different) about whom they can spread the idea of a childhood spent in secret gardens, woodland glades and befriending chaffinches. You can't imagine a man getting away with the same, but the more idiosyncratically at one with nature the presentation of a female singer the more saleable that's seen to be to the big wide market. Kate Bush, for example, a folk reared literary minded piano prodigy with an interest in interpretive dance and a mutual friend with David Gilmour, was shaped and presented as an ethereal artistic presence (or a teenager in a gym slip, but that's a different matter). Bjork released her first album aged eleven, as every biography points out, but that came off the back of a cover of Tina Charles' I Love To Love and was years before her indoctrination into punk and ideology. Girls, essentially, are different.

To such people, Natasha Khan turned out to be manna from heaven, away with the faeries if you wish. Although Khan is friends with Devendra Banhart, high priest of modern weird folk whose own emergence was greeted with some scorn despite supping from much the same well of wide-eyed lyricism, it feels like she's been given a different role altogether as Bat For Lashes. Tales of spiritual awakenings in Pakistan, all night free piano improvisations and art school design and performance litter her biography, suggesting that she is somehow not one like us, maybe exacerbated by her base in Brighton with all its image as a boho artistic enclave. You could equally pick out that she's squash legend Jahangir Khan's cousin (her father coached him), grew up in Rickmansworth and worked as a nursery school teacher, but that would make it sound prosaic. While she wore a gold glittery headband and requested audiences make wolf sounds, when we saw her she offset the headgear with regulation T-shirt and jeans rather than some sort of tribal business as you might have been led to expect and was clearly faintly embarrassed about the attention even as she asked for our vocal co-operation. It's the sort of dichotomy that might lead someone to be intercut looking bored in a car and then waving two orbs about in the middle of Jericho Tree National Park in a diaphonous sheet in the name of advertising. Which is funny, because...

What set aside debut album Fur And Gold, though, was a certain tapping into dreamscapes - some of the songs openly inspired by just that - an array of instrumentation and an atmosphere of being lost in the woods overnight with only rustling and bird noises for company, an imagiantion-as-escapism storytelling that takes on something of a fantastical semi-naivety that comes from the stories of young children. Khan has quoted Jan Svankmajer and David Lynch as influences, citing an interest in not so much the surreal as the subconscious. (That she claims one of her musical awakenings was seeing Lift To Experience live, a band that like Khan had religiosity's signifiers bubbling away in the background, isn't surprising in context) In a field of 'commercial potential' homogenity, Khan struck out for individual style and flair.

Plus, What's A Girl To Do? sounded like Sarah Nixey, which is always a winning influence to have.

So which way will second album Two Suns, released on 6th April, go? On the single's evidence alone, a slightly more commercially potential one - Daniel sounds like Fleetwood Mac's Rhiannon taken down those noctural woods in an ex-boyfriend's car. Now, we've said before there's far too much of this post-Guilty Pleasures Nicksianism about and the synth stabs, multitracking and wipe clean production does little to make this not come across less like the outpourings of our fairy queen and more like Ladyhawke without the clubbing desire. Luckily, although it's not the only concession to I Love The MOR Eighties it's also not Empire Of The Sun (apart from Pearl's Dream, which sounds even more like Ladyhawke and will probably end up as the second single and put casual listeners completely off the rest of the album through its unrepresentativeness. Well, at least we've found the one person who believed the single version of Prescilla was the superior.) It still sounds like gothic music - not big-G Gothic but Wicker Man pagan poetry with an autoharp. Everyone has mentioned Khan's new alter ego, destructive blonde femme fatale (why important that she's blonde?) Pearl, revealed on this record, usually with reference to Beyonce's Sasha Fierce. Our advice: forget it. It's not important. You can get by without knowing about it. They're both into galatic chamber-romanticism.

Opener Glass picks up exactly where Fur And Gold needed to lead us, with an unspooling rhythmic cross-threaded beat, Khan all over her register and a real sense of air in the production the better to sound like voodoo pastoralism. Sleep Alone suggests Goldfrapp's recent retreat from full-on dance to woody folkisms but also reflects that warmer live presence through an insistent beat. Actually, it's possible now that Khan is at her most effective when the music is at its most spare. Moon And Moon makes itself the emotional centrepiece, basically the same as the version she debuted two years ago on The Culture Show...

...but with a distant organ and with the doo-wop backing stranded out some distance away. Final track The Big Sleep is the most Bushish thing here, as synths arpeggio and piano glistens and Khan makes allusions to the end of a show ("no more spotlights coming down from heaven"), calling and responding with Scott Walker - SCOTT BLOODY WALKER - to leave all bodily hairs standing to attention. Pearl meanwhile gets ready for her big nights of destructive blonde femme fatalism with some PJ Harvey: Peace Of Mind is reminiscent of White Chalk, almost Victoriana in its arrangement simplicity, redolent of big empty spaces even when the gospel choir chip in on BVs, Siren Song is a spectral To Bring You My Love until an absolute flurry of drums decides to wage war on the staccato piano and Khan's vocal yearnings. Good Love is not dissimilar, only it sends the whole thing off into space instead. David Kosten's production deserves a lot of credit, somehow managing to transmit more efficiently on first listen and layer its rewards with real depth so that every listen unravels the mysteries that little bit more. Already making bold steps two albums in without faltering, it's looking like in terms of an artistically solid and eventful body of work Khan could become one of a strictly guarded pantheon of properly artistic British ladies. And more power to her elbow.

(Incidentally, if you're keen to follow this folk-starriness direction Caroline Weeks of the BFL live experience has a solo album out on the same day. Songs For Edna sees her put the words of 1920s/30s trailblazing American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay to delicate sparse guitar. See our TLOBF review nearer the time for a full elucidation)

Much has been made of the preponderance of females emerging in the last three to six months but even then they've been easily compartmentalised as either eclecticists with pop potential (Florence & The Machine, VV Brown, Marina & The Diamonds) or Eighties-welcoming synth players who want to make something real, they want to make a Yaz record (Little Boots, La Roux). Frankly, you'd be forgiven for being sick of it all, if only because the best of them fall right through the middle. Emmy The Great's album arrived when people stopped bothering with nu-folk, and Peggy Sue look to be heading the same way just as they've decided what their metier is. Everyone else has given it high marks so we'd just seem like bandwagon jumpers now but Micachu & The Shapes' Jewellery is a remarkable record because it fits in with nobody around Mica Levi and her genre liquidisations, more like the brilliantly awkward half-planned rackets the likes of Rough Trade eulogised at the end of the 1970s. And there's Bat For Lashes' own influence spreading further than Top Shop girls in headbands. Whenever will Mechanical Bride make a full-length?

Laura Groves' identity is stamped right across all this grouping. When the Bradford then-teenager, another to prominently namedrop The Blessed Kate, first emerged under her own name she played a sweet folky guitar, sang in a high register a bit like a northern Joanna Newsom and fitted right in with the then emergent Laura Marling brigade. At some point at the end of last year she had a mini epiphany, dropped her name in favour of the less restrictive strictures of a band name, Blue Roses (her surname appears nowhere in the press release), and wrote an almost entirely fresh set of songs for an eponymous debut album, released 27th April via XL. Not totally fresh - the Groves single I Am Leaving... still here in its fingerpicked, swooningly sad glory, as is Coast, the other track of her previous incarnation you may know - but this self-produced record imbues in itself a feeling of freshness, a gloriously open melancholy. Joni Mitchell is the influence to chiefly keep in mind here, the same kind of open heartbreak over spare, deceptively complex guitar and piano. Groves' lyrics, almost too clear, deal in almost too personal emotions and allusions, weaving tales of lost love and the wider world it revolves around as if nobody had thought of anything so opaque before. Cover Your Tracks builds on delicate guitar, decorative piano and an ever growing phalanx of backing vocals to sound like something grand without sending the production - Groves' own, in fact - anywhere near over the top. Can't Sleep is an exercise in her own vocal abilities, almost lullaby to dramatic peaks, wrapped in regret and almost Bon Iver-like in its deceptive tranquility. I Wish I... uses those keening vocals against solitary dramatic piano to extend itself fully - we're reminded of Wind In The Wires Patrick Wolf, that same kind of airiness that knows when to hold back and when to fire every emotion forward. Single Doubtful Comforts uses thumb piano to sound like a mentally broken musical box ballerina given voice, backed by Groves' own multitracked wordless vocals. We've grouped it with Bat For Lashes because quite aside from both being upcoming releases by solo females working under band names, while there's not the same full moon fever here the two albums do share a certain smokiness and solitude, an eeriness that effortlessly captures your heart.

Marling will be the glib comparison, but this doesn't feel tied in to English folk in the same way, but then it isn't really the American wing of indie folkiness either, neither New Weird Americana, anti-folk or Regina Spektor-like. Inventive in its simple strictures without being slippery, an album that'll break your heart and then mend it for you, the album creates an air of longing and an openness that can't help but win you over. And this is really a house clearing exercise - if Groves keeps up her development and advances on the raw emotions she might well be as able to make just as much her own distinct mark over a period of years to come as Bat For Lashes.


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