As is rapidly becoming traditional, let’s begin with a note about nomenclature. It is, after-all, a topsy-turvy world in which singer-songwriters go by names that ought to belong to bands, and where bands masquerade as singer-songwriters. Emmy The Great, it seems, refers to both the band on duty on First Love and also singer and songwriter Emma-Lee Moss. It’s fitting that this should be the case, as it’s the ensemble nature of First Love that pulls it out of the girl with a guitar groove and makes it something quite special. Emmy sings of one of her characters that she has “execution in her eyes”, and, punning badly, you could say the same of Emmy herself. First Love is an incredibly ambitious first album. That in itself is refreshing. That it comes off, for the most part, is better still.
Ms The Great probably doesn’t need too much introduction. She’s one of those artists who set the, erm, ‘blogosphere’ alight, prompting The Times to run a full-length interview before First Love was even released [Wears The Trousers tipped her for (actual) Greatness at the dawn of 2006! - Ed]. To be fair, she’s a pretty exciting talent. There’s very little about First Love that screams ‘first album’. Opener ‘Absentee’ is so self-assured that it leaves any preconceptions you may have had ruffled, if not in complete disarray. Into the mix go whip-smart lyrics, “your memory, like disease, holds on”; a mournful, hopeful cry of “kyrie elision”; a rampant accordion; and probably the warmest, most complementary male backing vocal you will find this side of the Atlantic – it’s pretty magnificent, if not majestic.
What’s so impressive about Emmy is the fact that she’s not a songwriter in the lone-wolf sense that seems to be the norm these days. She might be alluding to this, among other things, when she sings “I am not Diane Cluck” on ’24′. Indeed, if Cluck were the South Pole, Emmy would be hanging out in the North with the polar bears, getting them organised into a band. She’s been incredibly smart with First Love, insofar as she has shown that she isn’t just a lyricist with a good voice. Rather, she’s showing that she can put together different elements to create a distinctive sound. It’s a joyful experience, akin to Architecture In Helsinki in full flow.
It does mean, however, that the tracks where she retreats to simpler arrangements and her own, sometimes sparse, voice struggle to stand up next to more textured songs. ’24′ itself, ‘Dylan’ and ‘On The Museum Island’, for instance, pale next to the 1950s swing of ‘We Almost Had A Baby’ and ‘The Easter Parade’, which, like ‘Absentee’, inhabits its religious exhortation with ironic self-awareness. This is probably down to an uncertainty about what material to edit out – one of the most common symptom of first album-itis, but hardly the deadliest sin for those with the time and inclination to listen to more.
This you will probably want to do. First Love hollers out potential and marks Emmy out as one to watch. It might be galling to the cynics but the hype is, in this case, most certainly justified. Even so, there’s a great deal of room to improve on what is already an impressive debut. In a few years’ time, Emmy could, quite possibly, be huge.
[Close Harbour; February 9, 2009]
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