self released CD & DD album, 59m 14s
£10+ CD £9+ DD
It can be quite hard to find your place as a singer-songwriter; it’s an idiom whose audience mainly appreciates acoustic music, and mainly doesn’t appreciate anything too weird. Its audience also has a seemingly inexhaustible appetite for frankly indistinguishable assemblages of strummed steel-string guitar and predictable vocal melodies; it’s asking an awful lot of vocal timbre and lyrical conceit to make them the sole repositories of individuality and personality, and it is conversely very easy to go with the flow, knowing that if you can spin your simple songs out with enough polish in the delivery there is probably an audience out there for you, one that will be in awe of your talent simply because you’re able to get through a song without fucking it up. The upshot of which is that much of the music made in the idiom sounds much like much of the other music. It requires a good deal of judgement and intelligence to navigate a central path, to make music that is creative and original, but which treads gently enough on the hallowed ground of tradition to bring that folksong audience along with you. Brooke Sharkey and her band have an ear for these things. Obviously Bob Dylan softened the audience up for her a few decades back: no-one shouts ‘Judas’ at electric guitarists any more, and Sharkey mainly steers clear of that particular sacrilege. In fact, she doesn’t even skirt the fringes of the sacrilegious, but simply assumes complete ownership of all the musical materials she deploys, and puts them to her own very specific uses. Style to her is a framing device, rather than a source of ideas, or a creative crutch; it seems likely that she’d make a fair fist of jazz, dubstep or black metal, should she choose to turn her hand to those idioms, given the freedom with which she frolics within the artistic boundaries she has chosen to adopt. We all have to choose our field of play, whatever we’re doing: in my case, for the moment, it’s discursive prose, and I’m not about to go throwing in a chunk of free verse, or to feel limited because that’s not on the agenda; similarly, One Dress takes a specific set of parameters as a point of departure rather than a set of limitations.
The material draws predominantly on the language of Anglo-American folksong, in terms of its melodic and chordal content; diatonic major or natural minor harmonic palettes support tunes whose simplicity becomes a vehicle for the complexity of Sharkey’s nuanced and dramatic delivery. There are bluesy flavours (most strikingly in ‘My Apple’ and ‘Un Chantier’), there are sounds of bluegrass and cajun music, but the most pronounced stylistic colour is Celtic; both elements are integrated seamlessly, and it would be wrong to describe the music as a fusion. It would be more accurate to say that these songs take place on the common ground between a number of musical currents; nothing jars, and nothing sounds markedly unusual, but the songs take the ingredients they need without any particular regard for whether they are ‘supposed’ to go together. When ‘That Swing’ erupts into a reel for a short section it neither entails a feel change nor insists that we hear the rest of the song as essentially Celtic; the formal structures of the songs facilitate such an approach, with strong dynamic and rhythmic contrasts between sections, which simply absorb anything that might otherwise seem disparate into an overarching dramatic narrative. There’s a certain audacity in Brooke Sharkey’s willingness to drop a powerful, uptempo groove down to nothing but her voice; she knows she’ll bring the audience with her, and that confidence is charismatic. The arrangements are attended to as closely as the material, and they promote the songs as well as any that I’ve heard.
Sharkey’s voice is very expressive, and she uses it like a storyteller; she continually varies her vocal timbre, and modulates her dynamics word by word, subtly dramatising within each phrase while building striking narrative contrasts between them. Her vibrato is largely based on amplitude rather than pitch, which requires much greater breath control, and makes it a far more dynamically powerful tool. She really is a complete singer, with a clear awareness of how diction, accent and other extra-musical dimensions can be varied to intensify and add layers of complexity to the meanings of her songs. She has an impressively secure sense of phrasing, that permits her to push and pull at the delivery with the kind of interactive rubato that was pioneered by jazz crooners. All of this careful and precisely nuanced vocal delivery is matched broadly by the arrangements, and specifically, note by note, by the band as a whole. A decision was made at some point in the recording process to restrict the orchestration to the instrumental resources of a specific ensemble, presumably Sharkey’s live band, and to make the greatest and most varied possible use of them. The frequency with which, for example, the strings switch from arco to pizzicato and back again (opening tune ‘Autumn’ is a good example of this) is a token of the thought and care with which the music is arranged, as is the judgement with which the french horn, accordion and clarinet are so sparingly utilised; but the most important resource here is the feel with which the musicians work as a rhythm section. They are clearly excellent players individually, but they sound like they know each other well; One Dress features an ensemble sound, not an agglomeration of individual voices, and it’s a sound that swings hard throughout, but with great delicacy. There is a deep groove, even when the feel is ostensibly pretty sedate, as it is in ‘Saturday Morning’. It’s not just in their capacity for propulsion that the unity of the group is in evidence however; this is a band that can turn on a dime, rhythmically or dynamically, and frequently does. Their communication is palpable, and much of the music’s power derives from the unmistakeable humanity of its performers; these are people, saying things that they mean, not detached professionals executing set manoeuvres. Technically, everything is right on the nail, but the coherence of the sound is not something that can be earned by woodshedding or specified on a chart.
Brooke Sharkey is clearly an excellent musician in her own right; I’ve already waxed lyrical regarding her writing and singing, and it should be remembered that her guitar and ukulele are central parts of the rhythm section feel I’ve been describing. That being said, she’s lucky to have such fantastic musicians backing her up. There’s something decidedly synergetic about the sound of this album as a whole; ‘greater than the sum of its parts’ is a pretty daft term when applied to music, the quality of which is not usefully addressed as a quantity, but there is some real magic that happens in the coming together of the various elements here, in the way they cease to be elements, and become one thing. Clearly it’s one thing to achieve a great ensemble feel live, and another to capture it on a recording; it takes a combination of superb engineering and an informed, empathic mind directing proceedings (whether or not the hat it wears is labeled ‘producer’). One Dress is, to my mind, an extraordinary record. I’ve spoken about how often and seamlessly it moves from one thing to another, and that to me is where its brilliance lies. The liminal zones, where the band shifts gear, or where the lyrics slip smoothly from English to French, are never emphasised, but those moments of transformation extend their influence throughout the passages on either side, demanding that the listener hear the one in terms of the other. Opposite or complementary ideas are immanent in one another; the music speaks a world of possibilities. The lyrics are never self-consciously poetic, but dramatise the commonplace colours and tensions of everyday language, and the episodic character of the arrangements implies a wide world beyond the frame of the songs, one which the listener is soon anxious to explore.