Amy Duncan – Cocoon: Album Review

Haunting and spare, with a busy minimalism that beguiles, this indubitably lock-down project from Amy Duncan begs for attention.

Release Date: 26th November 2021

Label: Filly

Format: CD/Digital (via Bandcamp)

Busy minimalism? I guess that does sound a tad contradictory, but there is actually no better way to describe this extraordinary eighth record from Duncan, which seeps in and imprints indelibly from the start. Duncan, trained classically in the double bass, has an ineffable grasp of the importance of space, of the gaps between the notes, building textures in 3D, a honeycomb of sounds. Hardly surprisingly it is to Linn records she gravitated, or they to her, the audiophile label and makers of top-end audio equipment, home of the Blue Nile. Indeed, a link thereto is maintained, the album mix and mastering courtesy Cameron Malcolm, the son of Blue Nile producer Calum, even if this is on her own label, Filly (Duncan herself produced).

And whilst her previous recordings have tended to be largely acoustic, here she has here embraced electricity; electric piano, some synths, occasional guitar and bass, albeit all with the volume set to lo. “I love that the chords leave lots of space and that the tremolo keeps the space going“, she says. Courtesy of lockdown came the “happy accident that I had the piano to experiment on and a plan that this album would take me in a different direction.” Percussion, when it appears, tends to be the organic skitter of tablas, her voice the main instrument, floating over and around the other sounds like smoke. I am trying to avoid the ubiquitous use of ethereal, but, you know, it is.

The title track, which is the first, immediately sets the scene, capturing all the slow-motion self-containment of the covid restrictions, Duncan in her home, cut off and isolated, yet alive, and growing, in that isolation. (Paradoxical to that sonic impression, the lyrics actually refer to the fun she, her partner and son had together during that time, but never mind that now.) The electric piano echoes sonorously, she then cutting through, her high and clear tones embedded in some sinuous guitar. Step by step the layers build, some flurries of a second piano, the rush of the tablas, multi-tracked vocals adding further texture. Momentum builds the more, with, then, suddenly, without warning, it all stops. Some understandably and characteristically melodic bass runs then grace the brisker Treasure Hunt, a song about searching for clues, those lost remaining as stars that twinkle, the brushed drums adding elements of their sparkle. You Know Me then has an undulating piano motif, with the sort of aural texture Trevor Horn used to apply so well to ABC or, even, so shoot me, Dollar, her voice again multi-tracked for counterpoint, the melodies lingering as the song ends. Aptly given the narrative of lost friendships.

Blood is much starker a song, chilling even, a spooky vocal over more echoey piano and swathes of synthesiser, washing all around it. Referring to a childhood dream of torrential water filling her childhood Glasgow tenement flat, sweeping all out and down the stairs, herself included, “like blood“. “Take me back to a place of safety,” she implores as the song closes abruptly, her harmonies adding to the palpable horror. Oo-ee-oo. January allows some recovery, an observation through her windows to the surrounding dormancy of nature. Again the bass, stand-up electric, is a delight, as a repeating piano and prolonged organ chords, carry her voice, gentle little squonks of synth for additional emphasis. A song of contemplation, how the trees guard us through the winter, as the hills sleep, A brisk rouse from that mood greets A Door Is Opening, the pleasures of the daily lockdown walk, a sturdy and affirming hike through the, I’m guessing, city streets, relief to escape the cocoon, Friday night dancing or not. The piano sparkles, the drums bite; “stepping out into the street“, “so many people to meet“, the bendy bass lines, as ever, hard to ignore, guitar playing off on them. The sustain on the closing notes is joyous.

Warrior is an old song, rediscovered, clattering percussion and greater application of electronic textures, as she contrasts her childhood memories, playing with a bow and arrow, as adults fear nuclear holocaust. It is a stand-out few minutes, ahead of the more conventional Runaway, tablas and bass coming together once more, a chorale of her vocals drawing to mind a dreamscape of loss, search and rescue. This comes all too soon around to the closing Forget Me Not, a simple cascade of shared piano and vocal notes, with swathes of synthesised atmospheres slowly encroaching in. Spare and affecting, a delightful way to end this sensitive and thoughtful opus. The bass, should I repeat myself, again a glory.

It seems there have been never quite this number of releases pouring out this last week in November. Don’t let this get lost against any of the more strident competition. Amy Duncan has entered a new and exciting phase of her carer and this hails well for her future direction. Indeed, she has stated a desire to work next with a fully-fledged electronica producer, to expand this aspect of her palette. All the material is hers, as is nearly all the instrumentation. Guy Nicholson provides the percussion, with (yet) another mention for the tablas, and her son, Finn, provides some acoustic guitar to the title track.

An afterthought; sometimes ethereal is code for wispy or weak. Whatever you do, do not make this mistake. Duncan has a purity of strength in her gossamer tones, silk being as strong, relatively, as steel.

Amy Duncan premiered this release, at Edinburgh’s Voodoo Rooms, on 21/11/21. She will tour next year.

10/4/22: The Hug & Pint, Glasgow

19/4/22: The Green Note, London

21/4/22: Chapel Arts Centre, Bath

23/4/22: Pound Arts Centre, Corsham

Here’s the video for A Door Is Opening:

Amy Duncan online: website / facebook / twitter / instagram / youtube

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