Fair Mothers' second LP of 2020 finds Kevin Allan on unflinchingly visionary alt/wyrd/raw folk form. Essential.
THE OCCULT poet, painter and writer Ithell Colqohoun advanced the premise in her book, The Living Stones of Cornwall, that your local geology births you as much as nurture and nature.
She felt that the granite of West Cornwall gave rise to a certain hardened, otherworldly, stoicism. And you can see a certain geology at work in the bedrock underlying Fair Mothers, the project of Stonehaven man Kevin Allan.
Stonehaven lies on the eastern, landward end of the Highland Boundary Fault. Geologically speaking, it straddles two worlds. As does his second long-player of the year, In Monochrome (following Separate Lives, released on Valentine’s Day), which while being made very much in this world, hints at an otherness just feet away, were you to encounter a certain individual, or tread a certain half-choked old lane. There’s a granite in these songs.
Kevin recalls a formative experience engendered by reading Camus’ The Stranger: “After I finished that book and experiencing insomnia and hallucinations, I reached this total clarity where I knew that I was a separate entity from my body and this immediately blew quite a few fuses in me. I disappeared…and when I came back I knew that everything was connected, was really one thing, but at the same time was nothing and didn’t really exist separate from me.”
The album opens with “Magic Bullets For Dracula”, which Kevin reckons to be “the one Fair Mothers song I can hear being played in a sleazy club”. It arrives at your door with a thick, slow beat, John Bonham’s spectre playing that crucial split-second off the absolute metronome. Kevin’s voice is impassioned, twin-tracked, singing a melody against a drone note of himself. Tension. Raw Passion. Dark truth.
“Birds & Bees & Tiny Fleas” is almost a suite. A distant mellotron figure; a lowering riff which seems to have served a little time with Bowie and Bolan or Ian Hunter, if either of them had had a spectral encounter. Pianos and wah-wahs push up from beneath. Voices and instruments swell and eddy like the gunmetal grey of the sea; if you’re a fan of Dirty Three man Mick Turner’s solo guitar work, I swear you can detect his sensuous, unsteady beauty in here. “The winter is over now” declares a sweet female voice: Canadian artist Dana Gavanski … “tiny little feet”. The instruments gradually vanish into a chorus of birdsong, and between-stations longwave. Reportedly, it voices poetic fears about the future of the human race. It’s a hell of a conception and it’s so moving in ways it’s difficult to elucidate. Such is the nature of music.
“Harpy” was released as a single and has been reviewed in these pages before. It’s wire-fence-in-a-storm guitar, haunted fairground piano waltz and skeleton lilt loses none of its power among such company.
“In Black Covered” may be more in the pocket in its construction, but the piano textures are straight off the first Bill Fay album and god, those vocals … his raw throated delivery, you’d swear he was crying at 5am. He’s looking life straight in the eye, he’s looking you straight in the eye … “You can’t live without love / My heart is out on the floor and black-covered.”
“Unwinding Road” is, Kevin says, about the unconscious forces that drove author William S. Burroughs to murder. “There are versions of me / Better versions of you”, he declares over stark piano. Think Sufjan, soul naked on a promontory. Let’s revisit Kevin’s Camus epiphany for a moment. What the lyrics of this song seem to hint at is an awareness that life is perhaps not so much a road unravelling in sequence, but rather in series: at any juncture one’s life could fall into a darker, more imperilled iteration, just inches away, just … there, next to where you are in time.
“Monochrome” sits as the obsidian anchorage of the album. Straight in: “You’ve hardly said a word / Since you’ve quietened down …” It recounts “the fiercest argument I had with my wife, where we had to face the potential ruin of our life together,”, Kevin confesses. As the track gently swells, Faith Eliott adds warm ‘Sha-la-la-las’, an idea lifted from The Shirelles’ “Baby It’s You”: it’s stunning counterpoint.
Kevin’s second LP this year is dark, yes, but not without hope for redemption: “In Monochrome really signals a search to regain contact with feeling,” says Kevin. It’s also unflinching and visionary.
It taps into a vein of alt.folk that includes darker traditions: the awesome sadness of Mt Eerie; the eerieness of Comus, some of the rawer early moments of Micah P Hinson. It’s entirely itself. Its flaws only increase its perfection.
Enough of me. You really should be spending a little time now ordering this great, unflinching, emotionally frayed, sublime record.
Fair Mothers’ In Monochrome will be released by Song, By Toad Records on August 7th. To order, visit https://songbytoadrecords.bandcamp.com/album/in-monochrome