Perhaps as a response to a bombastic, punishing age, these post-millennial years have seen a resurgence of interest in quiet, meditative albums. These records, made equally by male and female artists, may be personal or political (or both), narrative or impressionistic (or both), but they share a number of distinctive characteristics. Unashamedly acoustic, fragile, spare and intimate, they’re a little bit country and more than a little bit folk, whilst colouring outside the lines of both genres. The most effective of these records, however, use their quietness strategically. Recognising the value of restraint, they conceal layers of emotion under their apparently serene surfaces, forging a reflective space for the listener and sometimes inspiring fervent, devoted followings as a result. But these records should never be confused with easy listening; they function instead as a confident rejoinder to the bluster and hype of the contemporary mainstream music scene.
At its best, On Night, the debut album from Sydney shopgirl turned singer-songwriter Holly Throsby, achieves this feat. Reminiscent of Kathryn Williams and Beth Orton, but with a gentle, distinctive Australian twang to her vocals, Throsby has been forging a solid reputation in her native land and elsewhere, playing shows with such neo-folk luminaries as Joanna Newsom, Devendra Banhart and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. Recorded in producer Tony Dupe’s house up on Saddleback Mountain in New South Wales (with the windows open for added atmosphere), Throsby’s tales of rue and relationships are, for the most part, poignant and well observed. The instrumentation is typically sparse — acoustic guitar, a dash of cello and piano — forcing Throsby’s sleepy-sounding voice right up front, making even her more self-consciously poetic lyrical flights sound conversational. Constructed from a limited but effective palette of recurrent motifs (birds, dogs, references to time), the result is a record preoccupied by the challenges of sustaining a relationship through the day or night.
While a couple of tracks do veer into inconsequentiality, even after repeated listens, there are several highlights. Opener ‘We’re Good People But Why Don’t We Show It?’ juxtaposes two lovers’ good intentions with disturbing references to “dead birds on the stairwell” and “the violence when we met”. ‘Some Nights Are Long’ is a truly great song about confusion, with the narrator caught between the desire to “make up my mind and then want to change it,” to “order my days and then rearrange them”. It’s followed later by ‘Some Days Are Long’, in which the uncertainty has been replaced with resolve and the narrator bravely attempts to equate love with emancipation: “I’ll work while I’m still young / Not to hold you down but to let you go.”
Throsby’s songs move through diverse moods with considerable grace and skill. Despite its lovely wry opening (“I get home after one and the dog looks drunk”), ‘Don’t Be Howling’ becomes a quietly desperate plea to be left alone. In contrast, ‘As The Night Dies’ is touchingly resigned, offering a frank and unadorned response to a relationship’s demise: “Is it too much for you? / is it? / well alright”. The narrator anticipates “coffeepots calling / and the sunrise” and is imbued with tentative hope for the new day. This is where the original 2004 Australian release ended, but the European edition is bolstered by bonus track ‘The Dark’ taken from the same recording sessions. With or without it, On Night is an engaging album that draws you into its hushed and measured atmosphere. It may require a little more verve to truly distinguish it from the crowd, but it’s a promising debut and one that marks Throsby out as an artist to watch.
[Woo Me!; January 30, 2006]
Tagged holly throsby