Filed under: album, review, video | Tags: 2009, martyn clayton, music, nancy elizabeth
Wrought Iron •••••
The Leaf Label
In the best of all possible worlds, everyone would have a grandma from the Faroe Islands. Or at least, given the paucity of Faroese population numbers, any musician broadly operating within a folk milieu. Nancy Elizabeth Cunliffe has just such a grandma, and wrote much of her second album Wrought Iron in that particular ancestral home. And if this anything to go by, there is nothing like the tough romance of Europe’s chilly island peripheries for imbuing what you do with a shock of understated naturalistic ardour. From the piano-led instrumental landscape poetry of the opening ‘Cairns’ through to the wispy mesmeric season blues of the closing ‘Winter, Baby’, an intense thematic sense of isolation pervades. The Faroes can’t take all the credit though; rural Spain and, closer to her Wigan home, The Lake District also played their part. No doubt too did the 17th century cottage in North Wales where the album was recorded without too much contemporary trickery. The result? A gorgeous piece of work in the downbeat yet uplifting pastoral contemporary folk tradition of Nick Drake.
But there is much more to Wrought Iron than pure homage to the canon. After the gentle summit marker of ‘Cairns’, ‘Bring On The Hurricane’ builds from a gentle guitar introduction and intimate vocal to a gathering storm that swirls up an unexpected vocal harmony before the heavy weather passes back out to sea. The punningly-titled first single ‘Feet Of Courage’ cleverly utilises Cunliffe’s voice and footsteps as rhythmic backing as “the rolling movement of time” carries the lilting intonation of her vocal, with all its warm imperfections, through an effortlessly seductive meditation on the building of personal character. Like the patience, constancy, application and sweat required to craft something so hard as wrought iron into a thing of great beauty, Cunliffe accepts that life is a tough but redeemable labour that will only produce something worthwhile if the toil is embraced fully. The decaying stones and mortar of a mortal body provide the lyrical architecture of ‘Ruins’, as intimate as a stretched out naked torso in the half-light, all piano and whispered vocal, the sound of breath and the pump of blood cells audible above the quiet storm. It’s a movingly open piece of work about the quiet travails of the embodied experience, its contours and angles, allegories and metaphors. The sound of rain falling breaks the intensity, the weather never being far away throughout the whole album. They have a lot of it on the Faroe Islands.
The lovely rhythmical charm of ‘Cats Bells’, a gentle, jangly sunlit instrumental, twirls like a wind-up jewellery box ballerina. After the lyrical ruggedness of ‘Ruins’, it’s a delicately welcome flourish. There’s a tick-tick creeping fear at the heart of ‘Lay Low’, with its exceptionally well crafted arrangement and use of instrumentation that builds into an underplayed brass-dressed travelling song about the patterns the internal life drives your feet to make on the landscape. A couple of guitar chords and suggestive harmonica makes subtle the music and brings forward the lyric on ‘The Act’, as carnal a piece of love poetry as is ever likely to emanate from anywhere near Wigan Pier anytime soon. As well as the guitar and piano, the vibraphone and glockenspiel are utilised, the latter to discordant effect on the closing track as a bluesy, cooing vocal, oddly reminiscent of the distant Drake’s ’black-eyed-dog’ moments, trusts that the passing bleakness of the season will soon be replaced by the returning spring.
Wrought Iron is an album of passing scenes, whispered discretions and atmospheric change sweeping across big horizons. And in the middle of it all, connecting the earthly with the intimate is Cunliffe herself. It makes sense that she should seek inspiration in a place of bloodlines, because this is a rooted, naturalistic piece, the surface fragility disguising a resolute core that remains as unbending as any tough metal in the face of passing adversity. As lyrically introspective as she is at her most solitary and unguarded, she leaves no room for indulgence; the lasting impression is of a talent who appreciates the need for solid foundations beneath the ornamentation. Wrought Iron is the best kind of sensual adventure, a personal retreat by musical proxy.
UK release date: 05/10/09; www.myspace.com/nancyelizabethcunliffe
‘Feet Of Courage’
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