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The Hollow Of The Morning

Tipperary Songbird blossoms on long-awaited comeback – eventually

Rating: 7 / 10

Patrick Freyne, 30 Apr 2008

Gemma Hayes comes back for round three with David Odlum producing and help from Kevin Shields, Paul Noonan and Joe Chester who all contribute guitars and drums and general Irish music industry authority to the record. But that’s all by the way. What are the songs like? Well in many ways this is a big leap forward for the Tipperary singer. I think she’s realising that she doesn’t necessarily need the studio trickery and pyrotechnics when the songs are strong enough. On this record the level of Production with a big ‘p’ seems to be inversely proportional to the strength of the songs.

The mediocre ones, for example, (‘Out Of Our Hands’ and ‘Home’) contain more of that ambient wash of guitars and the trademark 4AD acoustic chug that was the fall-back sound of previous records. On the other hand, ‘This Is What You Do’ is a strong opener (even though she seems to have borrowed Stina Nordenstam’s voice for some reason) and that track’s pretty stripped down with acoustic guitar and vocals to the fore and percussion and eerie ‘ambient’ sounds way down in the mix. The poppiest track is ‘At Constant Speed’ which takes a different direction, building from a dubious electro pulse to a delicious emotional chorus. It also dispenses with the washy guitar and reverb sludge, and uses more defined synth and guitar parts.

And then the two best songs on the record ‘Chasing Dragons’ and ‘January 14th’ (which is only a minute and a half long) are as sparse as it gets, with just picked acoustic guitars and vocals, lovely melodies and a big whack of emotional honesty. I would love to hear a whole album like this. It’s a straighter, more honest direction and it’s a mark of really good production to let these tracks just be (this is where producer friends usually get indignant and talk about all the time they spent carefully applying compression, choosing takes and experimenting with reverbs on “stripped-down” songs – but the principle remains). Going back to listen to ‘Home’ again for example it feels like the arrangements are second guessing the songwriting, trying to add “credibility” to something. Fuck that, I reckon.

In the past Hayes sounded like an uncomfortable combination of Stevie Nicks-era Fleetwood Mac and mid-'90 4AD bands. As she learns to trusts her songwriting voice more both these influences are fading away, the overbearing arrangements are being discarded, and she’s on her way somewhere more interesting and honest. She’s not there yet... but she’s getting there.

Key Track: ‘January 14th’

Rating: 7 / 10
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