Thursday, 30 July 2009

Sea Sew - Lisa Hannigan

Those unfamiliar with the name of Lisa Hannigan prior to her nomination for the Mercury Music Prize will almost certainly have heard her vocals, adding lustre to the harmonies of Damien Rice on his albums O and 9. Tales of an acrimonious split are unconfirmed, but veiled comments in interviews with Rice cite the old clich├ęs of a breakdown in communication and a gap in their artistic goals.

Sidling into the limelight, Hannigan for the most part eschews Rice's spartan approach, instead choosing to flesh out her songs with brass, piano, strings and various other vintage and esoteric instrumentation. However she does retain certain structural schematics that fans of Rice will identify; slow building crescendos, a predilection for atmospherics, texture, mood and nuance. But there is a lightness of touch in the arrangements and lyrical themes, and a refusal to correspond to a Celtic archetype, that sets her apart.

What is also evident is the change in Hannigan's vocal work now that she is recording under her own name. On O and 9 her voice was cracked at times, with an incredible amount of drama and tension invested in it. But Sea Sew contains an immediacy and playfulness that is partly down to Hannigan's conversational tone. Hannigan's vocals are also extremely malleable, able to adapt to a broad spectrum of styles. This is important because as the album develops it becomes clear that it falls into three distinct shades; winsome folk, sophisticated pop and dark alt-country.

“I don't know if you write letters or if you panic on the phone, I'd like to call you all the same, if you want, I am here...” So goes 'I Don't Know' and it is an unashamed love song that screams POP CROSSOVER at you in a hysterical voice. Marketing and PR guys and label bosses and award ceremony bigwigs and Barclaycard must be rubbing their hands and eyes and cloacas and visceras and other varied body parts in glee. It is a harmless ballad with a big chorus, but I was left questioning its authenticity. In fact after the opening folk gambit there are various songs that demonstrate pop sensibilities. The best of these is 'Keep It All' - a brooding, pulsing pop song situated somewhere between Feist and Bat For Lashes, with Hannigan's dark vocal take playfully subverting the previous track's unashamed 'pop' proclivity.

The enjoyment of an album often relies on lots of small elements, and this is particularly the case on Sea Sew. The polka feel of 'Sea Song', the brass, banjo and breathy vocals that end 'Splishy Splashy', the wheezing harmonium of 'Lille', the contrapuntal pizzicato violin on 'Keep It All' and then the droning and discordant string work with a glockenspiel playing the counter-melody on 'Courting Blues' aren't just disparate elements but taken together they add to a confident and composed performance.

Hannigan's songs are naturally introspective and concentrate on an inward-looking, self-referential world . This homespun approach, further evidenced in the kitsch crocheted album sleeve, can be charming at times but is unmistakeably twee. The lyrical imagery is peppered with whimsical non-sequiturs, quaint turns of phrase and references to mundanity (knitting, food and tea). Which brings us to the Mercury nomination. What Hannigan has produced is a deeply personal work and it is a shame that she is being desperately shoe-horned into a particular category as a result of the nomination, for it is a strong debut that showcases her delicate voice and imaginative syntax.

This article was originally produced for To read the music review of Sea Sew by Lisa Hannigan on the site please click on the article title.

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