It’s often said that the hallmark of a good song is that it can be played in an alternative style – typically stripped down and simple – and still sound decent. The unstoppable sewer of dodgy acoustic covers on YouTube has pretty much obliterated this argument, creating a distressingly visual song-cemetery where bona fide classics flinch and revolve in their metaphorical graves alongside the regurgitated chart tripe of the hour, but a redeeming grain of truth keeps the musical edification hanging on. After all, a song relies as much on its performer as it does on its design.
And the hallmarks of a good performer? Arguably these are, in order, ability, honesty and individuality. With several EPs already propping up her discography, a gold-starred Southbank Centre residency gleaming off the page of her CV and the proudly trumpeted approval of one Courtney Love, London’s Catherine Anne Davies has more than proved her competency as a vocalist and pianist. Honesty, too, hasn’t been a stumbling block. Her songs are often personal and, despite their sometimes bookish leanings, never pretentious, and she’s quick to condemn any sense of “fabricated authenticity”. She may look china-doll fragile in her press shots but Davies can be convincingly earthy, a sort of spiritual descendant of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s redemptive Morgan le Fay in her bestselling novel The Mists Of Avalon.
Individuality, or rather a perceivable sense of it, has been harder to come by for Davies, through no real fault of her own. But lately that too has been shining through as her self-confidence has grown, promising much from the eventual release of her debut album. Anyone who has followed her career right from her first EP, Songs For The Boy Who Wouldn’t Read Rilke, to the present day will no doubt have marvelled at the technological leap in her recordings. A typical Davies track these days might bear as many layers as it does notes (okay, a slight exaggeration), with orchestral backing and carefully arranged choirs of self-harmonies, which makes the release of Skeleton Songs a timely reminder of what she really sounds like shorn of all accoutrements of grandeur.
Billed as a collection of “musical sketches”, these five songs are little more than slightly embellished home-recorded demos. Yet they don’t sound nearly as raw as that description suggests; after all, Davies has been doing this kind of recording for years, in her own words “trying to screen out the sound of sirens or neighbours arguing, coiling cables around washing racks and using duvets as makeshift vocal booths” – and her ingenuity has paid off. Recorded on a borrowed Spanish guitar and accentuated with hesitant, gentle piano and strings, ‘Missiveh’ is both accessible and conceptual, “the story of a woman broken down by her existentialist husband and baking”, and pairs nicely with the creeping piano ballad of ‘Over & Over’.
Far from being nonsensical, ‘Populah-La’ is the EP’s most fully realised and outright enjoyable moment. Ushered in on a steady piano riff and an instantly connecting chorus of backing vocals, it’s a curious number that momentarily expands its effective, limited palette with touches of harpsichord. Davies whips out another keyboard for an “organ version” of ‘Carry Your Heart’, the title track of her acclaimed 2009 EP, substituting the sashaying synth line and classic, sultry delivery of the original for a spooky adagio glide that haunts long after the distorted, panning final notes resolve.
Closing track ‘The Heart Wants To Be A Hammer’ feels somewhat generic compared with the four that came before. It’s repetitive, but just short enough to bear it, and perhaps stands to gain the most from a studio production (though these ears are craving to hear a full treatment of ‘Populah-La’). But overall, Skeleton Songs does a commendable job of showing just how far Davies has come at the same time as proving that, just like slow and steady, simple and succinct has a winning streak too. Relatable to Bradley’s Morgan, who tries to maintain her Avalonian matriarchal legacy in the face of the rising Christian patriarchy, Skeleton Songs is Davies acknowledging her past while indicating and accepting what the future holds. In her case, more good songs by an increasingly interesting artist.
[Outsiderhood; June 1, 2010]
Tagged catherine A.D.