Surprising and searching solo debut from this accomplished singer, with a beguiling switch of focus.
Release date: 26th August 2022
Label: self released
Format: CD / digital
Debut release from fresh-faced Isle of Lewis native is a description that certainly had me fooled, expecting at least a smidgen of the Gaelic. Or some tasteful bagpipes sneaking in somewhere, maybe even the clarsach I know she can play. But no, not a hint here to suggest she has a backstory in the tradition, her duo with Pablo Fuente and her membership of groundbreaking Gaelictronica band, Inyal. Thankfully, that didn’t put me off, and, let’s face it, will no doubt anyway give her a better crack of the wider audience this attractive recording is surely aimed at. If you like well-crafted and intelligent, oxymoron alert, pop music, this should be right up your street.
Now based in Glasgow, she has brought together a powerful collection of largely female artists, who frame her self-penned songs in a bed that meshes synthesisers, guitars and sumptuous strings, the mood subtly altering from song to song. Songs of reflection and songs of uncertainty, the lyrics often in some contrast to the melodies, a wistful air of knowing self-deprecation a near constant. With her voice pure and undeniably accented, it is her words that ground the sweetness with a hint of delicious sour.
Opener, Be Around, starts with disembodied vocals, over which she starts to sing. Despite my earlier comment, is that a whisper of plucked catgut I hear, but, all too quickly that thought is banished, as the arrangement accelerates into a canter, a sawed orchestral backing vying with the propulsive and almost motorik rhythm section. A brief step back for consideration, and then it is off again. A worthy start, and one that leads into the atmospheric slow burn of Universe, a slow bubble of synth chords and pings here the cradle. Near token male, Louis Abbott, adds drums as the string section sweep in, the class of the arrangement immediately identifying the presence of Seonaid Aitken and some of her usual cohorts. For fear of nailing her colours to any one style, Duncan now breezes in with some near Nick Cave, the opening lines of Can’t Get Enough: “I hate the idea of unconditional love,” over a solemn piano, seeming not a million miles from you know what. With her voice ratcheted down into regret max, this is a quite a feat, the song gradually building, some nuanced background electric guitar, from Andrew Cowan, now the foil for the strings. A word here for the bass of Charlotte Printer, from Skerryvore, the band (and possibly also the place), who knows how few notes are needed to be just enough.
Anyone But You starts with a lovely skitter of electronic keyboard, and then has a scintillating drive into a droning backdrop, thence swapping between skitter and drone, the rhythm section dipping in and around. A song based, I think, on the pleasure of being alone in a crowd, observing and absorbing, the words bear some close attention. Which leads to the first song, track 5, Natural Disaster, which might have been what was otherwise expected in this project. To her own guitar, this is (another) song of desperate self-deprecation, densely picked and quite beautiful. More acoustic guitar, if with electronica and strings again finding the perfect setting, the tabla-like hand percussion, Signy Jakobsdottir, is exquisite. A saxophone solo, from Craig McMahon, who handles also the majority of keyboards, cuts through, and hits that Black/Colin Vearncombe spot that is becoming apparent in this disc. With the title, Evil Plan, I am wondering where this woman has been. Or is plotting.
More sax, this time evoking Van’s Avalon period, introduces the choral vocals of Interlude, some wondrous viola, maybe cello, so possibly Sarah Leonard, possibly Alice Allen, swooping in, blending and blurring any distinction. Largely instrumental, bar a short verse, it certainly gives pause to ponder. A spoken “Yes” then shatters that mood before the OMD-like analogue synths of Only Borrowed break through, Duncan’s voice now a deceptive croon, the gentle melody belying the passage of the barbed lyric. “Don’t you worry about me.”Indeed. In case you are, Autumn And I comes as a calmer affair, largely back to guitar and a gentler perspective.
As if to ring yet further change, Duncan then comes over more Amy MacDonald than even Amy MacDonald for the completely different sway of On The Mend. A guitar-led chugathon, it would be a cracking single. But lest you are feeling overmuch reassurance, the penultimate place is reserved for perhaps the most affecting song of the project, Miles And Miles, a dispassionately chilling song, just voice and guitar, haunting and upsetting in equal measure. Cripes, if you don’t now want to send her a cheery message of hope, you either don’t have a soul or have never been there. Thankfully, so as to avoid ending on a downer, the last song is the uplifting vintage synths of Finish Line, which makes for a more hopeful conclusion to this most beguiling of albums.
Try track 2, Universe: