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Damien Rice's former collaborator flourishes on solo debut.
Peter Murphy, 03 Sep 2008
Until now, Lisa Hannigan could have given lessons in how to project Elusive Allure. All we knew of her was the voice, a deceptively spectral instrument that by turns shadowed, contradicted and chided her male leads. Although instantly Google-able as the waifish hippychick in Damien Rice’s romantic period dramas, or the playful counterpoint to Gary Lightbody on the lovely alt-country Cake Sale duet ‘Some Surprise’, she still seemed like that increasingly rare thing: a ghost in the media machine, an under-interviewed folk idoru with the magnetism of a silent film ingenue, the blank screen onto which thousands of smitten indie boys could project their boho Suze Rotolo fantasies.
Now the ghostess is made flesh, and her debut album doesn’t disappoint. Sea Sew is, for want of a better description, an avant-folk suite. In a modern domestic context it could be regarded as a sister piece to David Geraghty’s Kill Your Darlings or Maria Doyle Kennedy’s Mutter, but its roots are deep, infused with the searching spirit of early ‘70s acts like Van, Laura Nyro or Tim Buckley, wayward grail-questers who wove together variant but compatible strains of free jazz, folk and Andulasian esoterica.
‘An Ocean And A Rock’ and ‘I Don’t Know’ braid Joni’s virtuosity with the lovely tapestries of Morrison’s No Guru, while ‘Sea Song’ and ‘Keep It All’ are adorned with lovely little twists, tricks and stitchings drawn from classical, Spanish and Celtic streams.
Hannigan’s vocals are neither stridently show-offy nor given to the breathy don’t-look-at-me/look-at-me parlour games of shoegazing songbirds. Her cast of players – including Rice regulars Shane Fitzsimons on stand-up bass and cellist Vyvienne Long, plus Tom Osander on drums and Gavin Glass on piano – are accomplished but idiosyncratic, never phoning in the slick lick, never watching the clock, always taking the trouble to forge the kind of sounds (embellished by harmonium, trumpet and glockenspiel) you can’t find in the off-the-rack Ikea catalogue of the sonic dial-up digimart. These performances happen in real time, and sometimes slow real time, down to a point where the songs create their own continuum. ‘Courting Blues’ is a peak, full of drifting seashore and woodlands airs, yet elevated beyond the plain pastoral by neo-eastern notes bent to perfection, borderline atonal string drones, and subtle, loping rhythms. And the closing chamber pieces for piano and voice, ‘Pistachio’, ‘Lille’, and the epic ‘Teeth’, are by turns pretty, brittle, bitter and bewitching.