Lucy Farrell – We Are Only Sound: Album Review

Sound is but part of this complex and well-constructed debut solo release.

Release Date: 21st April 2023

Label: Hudson Records

Format: CD/ vinyl/digital

Lucy Farrell is a name that seems familiar, if the reason quite for why escapes, especially as she is an apparent 2017 R2 Folk Award winner. Apparent? Fie on my failing memory, for she was, and probably still is, a member of the Furrow Collective, who burst onto the trad scene the year before. With Alasdair Roberts, Rachel Newton and Emily Portman alongside her, I guess she was then the relative newcomer. Way back, there was the 2013 album Laylam; the result of a collaboration with Eliza Carthy, Bella Hardy and Kate Young. (They played the opening set of the Sunday at the 2013 Ramsbottom Festival during a torrential downpour – Ed). She entered a duo with Andrew Waite, for a duo album in 2020, all the while squirreling away the choice cuts of her own compositions. Hindered not by having helpful chums to call on, this solo debut is an attractive disc, with a quirky take on songcraft, drawing both on her immersion in the ballads of the British Isles and a lifetime listening to modern contemporary songwriters. All these songs are her own.

Her friends? Kris Drever is her main man here, on guitars and additional vocals throughout, with lap steel coming from M.G. Boulter. Joined by Tom Lenthal on piano and the basses, electric and acoustic respectively, of Neil McSweeney and Ben Nichols, it is a tight wee band, with Farrell singing and playing both tenor guitar and viola. Andy Bell adds a touch of synth and percussion, and did much of the recording and mixing, Euan Burton abetting the former from afar. Normally the where of recording is of little merit, but Farrell makes a point of mentioning and thanking the owner of the studio space – a Gabrielle Drake. Actor, famous brother (deceased), that one. Respect.

Paperthin is a gentle melody, over fingerpicked guitar, that deceptively lulls you in, with a harmonium providing a bed for some multi-tracked bvs that act as a soothing balm. Her vocals bestride a nowhere land somewhere between received folkie and bright young urban, the diction enough to engage either camp and appeal to both. There is some spectral shimmer of electric from Drever at the 2/3 mark, it becoming apparent there is a slow wail of steel on the horizon. “I’m no good at this,” she says, in the chorus, following with “we could argue that.” Exactly. It is a good start, and lest you feel this maybe all a bit conventional, Snows Blowing Wild really isn’t. A spiky pizzicato rhythm backs her now faltering vocal, the keyboards a shimmering mirage, fluttering and floundering into cohesion. Pipe organ sings in the background, and the effect is hypnotic and entrancing. A seesaw viola introduces Keep On, another one where Bell has conjured up a haze of interconnected sounds and drones, Drever’s guitar the only constancy as all else comes in and out of the soundscape. These are woozy constructs, with her voice as much an instrument as a narrative. Only later do you remember to rewind, so as to catch that content, that second visit also worthwhile.

Sudenly (Woken By Alarms) has a melody that seems drawn from the tradition, if then maintaining the contrast of a similar backing. Drever’s guitar chimes at the start, becoming more elegiaic for a brief solo, as his restrained backing vocal adds an additional level. A tap of percussion announces Never Enough to be, or seem, simpler, with acoustic tones and multi-tracked vocals, and either a distorted guitar or a banjo to then poke attention. My notes suggest plaintive and maudlin, but it is actually neither, the repeated chorus probably more optimistic. Or maybe just fatalistically accepting: “but it’s always too much or never enough to sing about love and all that stuff….” So it is surely irony as she then invokes Love Is Easy, the title insisting on a closer listen. It doesn’t then sound quite so simple. The familiar boing of a stand-up bass, a lovely slow twang, gives a John Martyn-esque tang to this one.

Stripping back to just nylon strung guitar and sounds of the sea shore, Sit Down is stark and forboding, a dark song of realisation. A pin dropper of a song, when it ends, swiftly, you can’t help but gasp. The lyric of But For You extends that same metaphor, if this time with a river. Again, I can’t work out if this is a song of hope or resignation. Drever gets a co-credit for this one, his vocal in both harmony and echo, with a slow thwack of electronic percussion propelling the song along. Otherwise it is largely just voices and his guitar, some sepulchral keyboard chords aside. As the two singers reverse roles it is quite lovely, becoming a repeated mantra: “but for you I would slip into my swimming things“.

Edwyn Lullaby represents an actually needed respite or seems to, it all getting a bit intense. In a slow waltz time, it seems gentle enough, and might lilt you into a slower heartbeat. But, gentle as it sounds, as ever there is more there than it seems, a connecting thread in the words, back and forward. So, even as Drevers’s guitar lulls you down, the angst might still bubble up. Sacrifice sort of sums it up, reaching what seems the inevitable outcome to the past few songs. Sacrifice? You choose, but be ready for the final line. Further terrific spiky electric from Drever shimmers for the ceremony. Safe In The Open cements any earlier decision, a song, finally, of muted celebration. (Am I alone in reading all this presumed nonsense into these possibly unconnected songs?) Boulter adds some triumphant slides on his steel that lift the mood, a pleasantly repetitive creaky guitar motif a buoyant undercurrent.

To close the story, if it has been, final track We Are Only Sound, sees a change in the arrangements, with Richard Warren adding guitar, Laurence Hunt percussion. Farrell’s voice seems somehow clearer and more sure of herself on this one, and it is a swaying electro-pop ditty, with subliminal echoes of Moby’s We Are All Made Of Stars in the construction, in the mood and the message. The lyric is still fairly intense, naturally, but a wonderful way to end this occasionally bewildering disc, as it pulls you between presentation and content, forcing a split concentration on both words and music. Enjoyable, probably, on either level, far better if you dive in for both.

Here’s But For You – Live at John Wesley’s New Room, Bristol…

Lucy Farrell online: Website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram

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