Editor's Rating

9
BALLOON MACHINE

PSYCHOTHERAPIST by career, poet by artistic endeavour – both, of course, explorations of interiority, questioning and enlightening the self, although on the surface coming at the subject from quite different angles – Laura Fell only came to music at the relatively late age of 25, when her poetry seems to take a natural bend toward song lyricism. And once you’ve heard what she brings to the world of acoustic songwriting, you’ll be so, so glad she did.

In an interesting layering, Laura uses her music to seek answers herself – in a professional role wherein she’s always expected to have them.

The album is composed of eight very personal lyrical explorations – which, you know, is one thing, there’s plenty of lexically lucid troubadours about, you counter – but she not only reaches deep, shows with precision and economy, but by the gods, her musical settings: they tap into that vein of the great, lush Elektra and Verve singers of the late Sixties – yer Tim Buckleys, yer Tim Hardins.

In that way, she’s pulled off a little magic trick akin to that which our dearly departed and much-missed Amy did with Back To Black: remember when you heard that and you wondered why more people couldn’t operate so effortlessly in such a glorious sonic aesthetic, in Amy’s case, of course, Sixties’ soul?

Oh, and Laura’s voice. Now then. Hearing it for the first time, you might have a jaw-dropping, enlightenment-bursting little JFK moment; oh, here’s a new singer-songwriter, I thought, upon first hearing her debut single, “Bone Of Contention”, which is necessarily included herein; quite good, she is. Nice pace, nice sound … so far, so pretty.

“But oh my lord above, that voice,” I wrote at the time, and am prepared to testify, one hand on the Good Book as the whole truth. “Be prepared to arch brows the first time she slurs down toward the bass register as she sings ‘bones’ in the opening lines.

“You’ll think of the first time you ever heard Karen Dalton; the first time you ever heard Tim Buckley. Sorta that sorta voice. There’s a luxurious chords in an open tuning. It’s mellifluous and husky and graceful all at once.”

It would be wrong to deny you that experience, if you haven’t entered Laura’s world before; and since it came out as a single in August, we’ve taken the step of embedding the song down at the end there. I mean, just go listen. Seriously.

It examines a dysfunctional three-way relationship – another lover – in a 6/8 swing of acoustic guitars, piano, sliding strings and upfront lyricism. The other whom Laura sings at isn’t getting an easy ride: “Between me and him, between him and I, between us two / The bone of contention is you.”

“Bone of Contention is an exercise in anger, really,” Laura says. “I’ve always struggled to feel anger without also feeling out of control, and, therefore, disempowered. This song is about allowing myself to sit with my anger, and ending up finding clarity and power within it.” 

In a weird and entirely connotative way, and it took me ages to place this – the pacing, the smooth swing, the musical verdancy reminds me of “Fotzepolitic”, from Cocteau Twins’ all-time stunner Heaven Or Las Vegas. Yes, I am totally seduced. You don’t want music to do that?

So here we have the full album before us; and Balloon Machine, musical journal turned imprint in its own right, has certainly struck gold to have Safe From Me slotting in as no.001 in the catalogue.

The album opens with the 6/8 grace of “Glad”. A beautiful and under-appreciated time signature provides the chassis for a tale penned by Laura looking forward to a better time, as her parents’ divorce and the concomitant pain rippled out; it has these little minimalist, cycling melodic figures, as if Terry Riley was Sufjan Stevens. Or something. The lyrics are so wise, proffer hope of better things beyond: “But we, we will talk as friends / At family gatherings … And I know it’s hard for you / But the easy thing to do /Rarely lets us grow.”. It opens out into this expansive, heroic instrumental break, Laura humming in concert with other instruments, big timpani richocheting out back, an almost Russian feel to the melody; think maybe Profokiev. It’s a hell of an opener. It has grace in that sense of the emotional openness and beauty one can arrive at in the face of adversity; a gentle clarity.

And then followeth “Bone Of Contention”. Don’t get me started again. You know the right thing to do.

“Cold”, the third track of the octet, was the second single drop: skeletal, yawing Mitteleuropan jazz a la Tom Waits, all stark polyrhythms and wood blocks, punctuate Laura’s deep, genuinely dulcet, contralto; chocolate smooth.

Laura says: “[It’s] about the vulnerability of entering into a new relationship – wanting to open yourself fully, but fearful of doing this too soon – and essentially asking someone not to reject or judge you when you show them the messier parts of yourself.”

“Left Foot/Right Foot” is a neo-ragtime duet with her friend and co-writer Gus White, concerning a couple in that toe-treading, self-deluding dance at a relationship’s ragged end; still apparently dancing together, a couple in name. The husky, jazzy vocal harmonies evoke splendidly and all the more touchingly for their insouciant, faltering weave, dropping in and out, exploring other courses. Which of course is what happens at that stage. The melodic consensus of your love starts to fall away.

The muted western swing canter of “Every Time” is a lighthearted, rose-tinted walk through the memories of that one that got away, the one you smile wistfully about. It’s a gentle interlude that lets the sun shine on regret and transform it into something else; Safe From Me‘s most easygoing, straight pop moment. It glides.

“Until Now” sees Laura opening up in love: “You are now close to me / I know it’s not easy to be … and until now you’ve hidden behind humour with me,” she confides to her amour. It has the easy psych-folk-pop delicacy of Vashti Bunyan, maybe even Linda Perhacs, and winds down with the prettiest sax touches.

The title track, at more than five minutes, is a really audacious and brave soul-baring. And also a proper swooning, winsome, addictive highlight. It’s all about the layering, the slow flame; a modal guitar figure entrances, shifts subtly in its harmonics, rings seductively; Laura sings us through the sorrow of a love with insoluble psychological imbalances, and all the rippling strains and pulls that causes: “But do you believe that time / Together helped us find / The darkness kept inside / And bring it out to the light? Its happysad, sadhappy; sad with all those higher harmonics of emotion, wanting it to work, wanting to go back, get it right this time.

And all the while the instruments build, drums arrive, high tones sing; when it dies, it dies into residual tones. I was actually really bloody affected by this one; a precise balance of lyrical content and musical execution did those things only music does to your synapses, lighting up creative and emotive connections. She does that slur down into the bass register that makes you shiver so, too.

Laura’s first album – cos you can be sure, with a talent like this, there’ll be more – ends with the bittersweet guitar touchdown of “I Didn’t Mean”. Laura says it’s about that paradoxical pitfall of overthinking a relationship – that you want it to be so right that you exhaust yourself in examining it, thus ensuring it starts to buckle under the weight of your gaze. It’s introspective, with Laura right up front, spotlight on; it has that spectral country twilight of Mazzy Star, the other instruments an introspective shimmer, an impressionistic atmosphere, Laura in sharp relief as she sings: “Did I make you feel alone? / I didn’t mean to.”

If you’re at all down with female acoustic songwriting – and I mean from any colour of the spectrum, from Laura Marling through to Aldous Harding, Gillian Welch through to Vashti Bunyan, Nadia Reid through to Marissa Nadler; then be prepared to add Londoner Laura Fell to your list of chanteuserie swoons.

There’s been a couple of female singer-songwriters who’ve really nudged at the form with nothing more complicated than a massive degree of talent this year; one is Siv Jakobsen, the other is Laura. A truly splendid and gorgeous debut set demands room in your world.

Oh: did I mention, “Bone Of Contention” is on this album? Now …

Laura Fell’s Safe From Me will be released by Balloon Machine on digital download this Friday, November 20th – pre-order yours from Balloon Machine’s Bandcamp page, here. A beautiful and limited seafoam green vinyl pressing will be released on January 29th; you can order that here.

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