FIFTY3 FRIDAYS: DUSTING OFF A COUPLE
This week’s Fifty3 Fridays dusts off a couple of albums from the last decade or so. Taking an occasional break from the usual feast of new music can be good for the soul because it reminds you that there are but so many hours in the day and sometimes it is nice to spend a few in the company of some much-loved records.
Daughter released its third studio album Stereo Mind Game in April 2023 after a seven-year hiatus. We turn the clock back to 2013 now for a review of the debut LP from Daughter released to what is commonly called in this business, critical acclaim. It has more than stood the test of time too.
London singer-songwriter-guitarist Elena Tonra, who trades with her two band mates as Daughter, has a thing for single word song titles. There are ten of them on her March 2013 debut album, If You Leave, and the economy she brings to labelling them reflects the concentrated themes that ripple through this record. Potent images of life and death entwine with the ever-present subject of lost love. The album is a catalogue of heartbreak; a song cycle of such damaged fallout that it begs the question of just who are these heartless bastards?
She is not exactly alone, though. Throughout the album, Elena receives excellent support from her bandmates: guitar effects wizard Igor Haefeli and creative percussionist Remi Aguilella. If the former supplies the blood coursing through the record, the latter offers the heartbeat, over which the singer can bare her unfeigned soul. Because of this sincerity, it is both a difficult yet compelling debut. From stark opener “Winter”, which sees Elena and her love “drifting apart like two sheets of ice” to the stately closer “Shallows”, where the ghostly death wish of “drown with me” is enacted, If You Leave offers an emotional experience as complete as a long player might ever threaten to give you.
Each song exorcises Elena’s personal demons and burns strong in its own right. “Youth” is a true standout, with a cascading melody and rushes of sheer passion. The imagery of “corrupted lungs” and the reckless, wild youth “setting fire to our insides for fun” spells doom, yet the song is uplifting and almost euphoric despite its lyricism. The hypnotic, choral vocals of “Smother” provide another high point while, opening like an early Ben Howard song, the faster paced “Human” breaks the musical mould somewhat with its drum roll-fired energy.
The production’s airy space allows Elena’s brittle tone to be heard in soft echoes and die-away whispers. There is an anger to her writing that acts as a counter to its more blatantly depressive tendencies. So, what should be and clearly is a cathartic experience is also a pleasurable listen as you hear the ghosts of her past being banished. She is locked in a dark room lyrically, but that claustrophobia’s eased through an experimental dimension that defies the usual labels instrumentally. These cavernous guitar effects, corrosive beats, and inspiring melodic twists magnify If You Leave, an album with true grandeur and occasion. Bastards be damned.
This is a particular fine live performance of “Youth” by Daughter recorded in London's famous Air Studios with composer Joe Duddell and a 10-piece classical ensemble. It is followed by a suitable counterpoint in the shape of “Human”.
A version of this review appeared on Consequence in April 2013
Beth Orton released Sugaring Season in October 2012. While recognising the strengths of many of her other albums, it remains for me a wonderfully complete and fulfilled piece of work and my personal favourite.
It is said a change is as good as a rest. In the case of Beth Orton, whose 2012 release, Sugaring Season, came after a six-year break, a rest was as good as a change. Since breaking through with her official solo debut, Trailer Park, in 1996, the British singer-songwriter has always maintained a quality edge to her work. Refreshed and recharged by a break that made time for marriage and motherhood, Beth Orton returned with a new record that marks a transition from her electronica-fused roots to a richer, pastoral sound. It pays dues in its jazz inflections to Joni Mitchell and Pentangle and in many of its folk tones to the late Sandy Denny.
Opener “Magpie” sees Beth swooping around the register, playing with octaves over an intricate and increasingly intense string-driven backing. The arrangement is more than a nod to her friendship and collaboration with Bert Jansch. The lilting “Dawn Chorus” that follows is a far mellower mood changer, decorated by understated accordion, which balances her softer vocal perfectly. Such touches are dotted all over the record, and producer Tucker Martine deserves credit for blending the best of British and Oregon folk. Equally impressive, Beth’s accomplished band, augmented by a potpourri of imaginative strings and instrumentation, adds colour and texture without swamping her intimate contemplations.
One of the strengths of this album is how Beth Orton alternates moods while maintaining a sense of pace, an underlying heartbeat that unifies everything. Even the brief waltz-time oddity of “See Through Blue” seems to fit in. Each song stands out on its own merits, but two hit rarefied air. Bursts of raw emotion elevate simple piano ballad “Something More Beautiful”, while on ethereal closer “Mystery”, Orton’s voice is pure fragility yet as ripe as bruised windfall.
A version of this review appeared on Consequence in October 2012