self released, 2012, CD album, 47m 18s
I’ve been waiting with some considerable bating of breath for this album to come along. The first She Makes War full-length was a real revelation for me: accessible, guitar-based music, founded on traditional songwriting virtues, that hits the sweet spot aspired to by writers of prose fiction, and articulates characters whose experiences chime with the listener’s (or my own at least) memory and understanding. Artistic truth, in other words, and in art, truth is beauty. Laura Kidd, whose project SMW is, has thought through the requirements of promoting her own music with a great deal of clarity, and so her work is beautifully packaged, available in a number of gorgeous limited editions, all of which are genuine physical manifestations of her creativity, rather than cardboard boxes with a remix disc inside, as they might be if a record label was in charge of the process. Even if you just download the album from Bandcamp, the cover art is stunning, and in marketing, beauty is truth. There is real sense of coherence about everything that bears the She Makes War imprimatur, from the lyrics, to the video props you can buy from the website, to the production, to the St. Valentine’s Day single released as a limited edition of fifty handmade cards with download codes. This is not just some recordings, attached to some props to persuade us to like it and buy it; it’s a sonic and visual world, which we are invited to enter, and although the music stands admirably on its own two feet, all the other stuff enhances it wonderfully.
Laura Kidd’s vocal delivery is a key element in the character of She Makes War: she modulates a sense of vulnerability by letting breath in and out of her vocal timbre; she swallows certain vowels and terminal consonants in a way that signals youth, and locates her socially (albeit ambiguously); and there is a core of sinuous strength in her voice, even at her most abjectly fragile. In other words, there is a great deal of awareness and control, of well considered musicianship, in a vocal style that avoids the narcissistic clichés by which many skilled singers feel compelled to showcase their technique. Her voice is exploited to the full as a resource for orchestration, with harmony parts, counter-melodies, textural interventions, weaving in and out of the arrangements in complex ways, frequently treated with a subtle distortion. There’s an interlude in ‘Magpie Heart’ where the voice is used to perform a riff, which anticipates the following track, ‘Delete’: this arrangement is built from layers of vocal loops, and it’s a really impressive piece of orchestration, creating a swirling, hallucinatory, but rhythmically grounded soundscape. The arrangements in general take a step toward a conventional full band sound from Disarm, the first SMW album, but they are always orchestrated to the requirements of the song, as in the ukulele and strings treatment of ‘Butterflies’. The grooves are usually straightforward, and the instrumental sound is a sort of grunged-up, dark indie rock for the most part, but the sound is altogether more subtle and sophisticated than either of those statements might suggest; elements within the band sound are often unconventional, or downright off-the-wall if you pick them out individually. The production betrays an almost obsessive attention to detail, with every sound tweaked to a precisely considered timbre.
This album is, of course, a collection of songs, and as such they are all about something. They are, if you like, the material substance of the world of SMW, for all that there are a lot of nice soundscapes to listen to; and given that SMW’s world is a pretty gloomy place, the songs are melancholy in mood. Arrangements, musical materials and lyrical content are all expertly bound together, creating coherent experiences for the listener that address mind, body and emotion with powerful mutual reinforcement. The trebly, rhythmically off-kilter, pedal point bass riff that anchors ‘Never Was’ precisely encapsulates the song’s ambiguities, as sentences emerge gradually, word by measured word, and we are left wondering whether to regret what might have been, or whether to consign what did transpire to the world of the imaginary, where it will hurt less. ‘With lonely lips and heavy hips I’ve tried/ but I always lose to butterflies/ but I/ don’t mind/ I’m not wasting my time’, Kidd sings in ‘Butterflies’, and that’s as good a place as any to seek the album’s central themes. There’s not a single song here that celebrates the joy of love, or the unalloyed warm comfort of a secure relationship; all is anxiety and uncertainty. This might suggest the arrested adolescence of a self-indulgent wallow in the minor keys of romantic disappointment; sentimentality, in other words, and that very well might be the case were the characters in Kidd’s songs less convincingly sketched by the few snatches of dialogue that they’re permitted. They sometimes seem unnervingly reminiscent of my own experiences, with lines that seem to be spoken by someone on the receiving end of my own worst tendencies, and that’s quite a trick, to address a widely shared experience through a subtle (and minimal) gesture of the particular. But as suggested in the last line of the above quote from ‘Butterflies’, or the assertion in ‘Done And Said’ that the narrator is ‘not ready to regret’, there is a sense, not of optimism exactly, but of faith in one’s own strength, which duality is precisely the one I outlined in relation to the vocal delivery. Not every song concerns a failed relationship: ‘May Our Daughters Return Home’ inverts the gender of a wartime lament (although I’m still not sure what it’s actually about!), and ‘Done And Said’ explores more expansive existential themes (‘All is number/ all is time … we are homesick space-stations’); however, the emotional themes, and the moods of the songs, are consistent throughout.
Little Battles includes some great, all-round musicianship, and some highly accomplished writing. The production is a work of art in its own right, but if I have any criticism of the album, it’s probably in that area. It’s a commonplace to describe recordings as sounding very ‘produced’, and I’m wary of that coinage; some of the most raw and ragged sounding records you’ve heard may have been tweaked for months by a whole team of people, and some of the slickest may have been obtained by simply plugging some highly skilled musicians into some top-notch equipment and letting them do their thing. However, this is certainly a very polished production, although not one with a generic sound as that might sometimes imply. What I mean is that the arrangements and recordings all sound very finished, which seems out of step with the emotional rawness of the material, notwithstanding the grungy, guitar sounds, and liberal use of distortion. It reminds me of a new finish being offered by the bass manufacturer Warwick, which seals live rust beneath a polished lacquer. As a musical utterance this feels hermetically complete, a music of conclusions rather than a music of possibilities; but then this could be heard as an appropriate expression of the claustrophobia in the relationships depicted in these songs; that is, I think, an important aspect of the album’s mood. It’s melancholy, it’s gloomy, it’s dark and it is decidedly claustrophobic (and it’s interesting to note that Laura Kidd sometimes plays bass for Tricky, the master of recorded claustrophobia). That sole reservation notwithstanding, this is a remarkable piece of work. ‘In these arms I hope for sweet surrender/ in these veins I hunt for poetry’ say the lyrics to ‘In This Boat’: whether the hope is rewarded we can only guess, but the hunt has been a resounding success.