Karen Grace – Bitter Sweet (avant-folk)

self released 2015, DD & CD album, 38m 30s

£8 DD £10 CD


Bitter SweetI’m sure that Karen Grace thinks she’s just writing songs about the things that matter to her, and recording them in the way that suits them best. There’s a whole world of acoustic singer-songwriters out there, all doing that, and a frightening number of them do it really well. Doing it really well is not enough to make it outstanding however, or even, unless you happen to have a personal connection to the artist, worth listening to at all – because however particular it is in detail, in almost all cases that particularity is paradoxically generic. So what is worth your time in this brave new world of saturated exposure, of over-determined communication and cultural superabundance? Well, I would like to argue that Bitter Sweet is worth your time, because although it’s fairly clear that Grace is not setting out to contrive a novel sound, although she isn’t necessarily trying to be different, her music is coming out different. ‘Oh, it’s different isn’t it?’ as ones conjectural auntie might say while struggling to avoid saying anything unkind about a sound that commits the cardinal sin of not sounding exactly like something she’s heard before (I’m not being sexist, the equivalent stereotypical uncle would have said the same, but he’s out in his shed tinkering with a two-stroke engine, so he didn’t hear it). Well, yes it is different, otherwise I wouldn’t waste my time writing about it, but what marks its difference is hard to define. The album strikes me as marked by a subtle air of oddness, a refusal of certain expectations harboured by mainstream audiences, without a corresponding embrace of any stylistically bizarre features, abrasive textures, ‘difficult’ musical materials or disturbing themes. Its aesthetics are founded on an entirely recognisable notion of beauty, and pay all due obeisance to the requirements of a polished performance and production; and yet Grace seems to stand apart from these values, laughing quietly at some private joke. Look at the cover: it’s kind of like that.

The majority of the album is built on a consistent stylistic melange, an acoustic roots feel that sits at an intersection between rural Americana and European Gypsy music. There’s an acoustic guitar at the heart of each arrangement, which may well be an artefact of Grace’s accustomed performance conditions – many singer-songwriters record albums by expanding existing arrangements born of the exigencies of solo performance. But rather than superficially decorating those guitar parts, these arrangements integrate them sagaciously into grooves and soundscapes that sound more like ends than means. Subtle percussion, expressive strings, warm double bass and a whole world of other voices are deployed, but however sophisticated the orchestration becomes (in places, very), it always sounds simple, and the core texture is usually pretty spare. What brings the songs to life (apart from Grace’s voice, which I’ll come to in a moment, and their own compositional virtues), is the precisely nuanced dynamic and rhythmic feel with which they are performed. This is a distinction that can be difficult to convey in words, but for me it’s something to do with the capacity to outline a whole groove in a simple gesture, a lilting offbeat that is so precisely placed that it makes sense of every other element. There is also a great range of orchestral colours, deployed in deliberate concord with the rhythm section’s light and shade, like the gorgeous tremolo strings in ‘Deep Down Things’. It’s to Grace’s credit that all of this feels integral to her musical meanings, rather than decorative or ancillary, but it is still her voice that is the key component, and it is a very fine voice. Sometimes vulnerably proximal, and sometimes dramatically powerful, she has been careful to retain a strong sense of individual tone, something which trained singers can struggle to retain, as technique drags them toward an aesthetic mean. There is a sense of speech in the delivery, a sense that Grace is telling us these things, and her technical capacities never detract from this immediacy. She phrases expressively, anticipating and retarding notes to further particularise her already precise lyrical texts, giving an exact dynamic value to individual syllables and deploying a penetrating vibrato only at those moments when it is required. The melodies and harmonic rhythms are erudite, but never flamboyant. Grace is very clever, but she’s not showing off.

Several of these recordings may also be heard on the EP Deep Down Things; I don’t know whether there’s been any remastering malarkey involved, and I’ve not compared the two releases under a microscope, but ‘Tired Heart’, for example, retains its arrangement and orchestration intact. The additional six songs (the version of ‘Sapling’ on the album is different) are certainly worth your money, but I’d think twice about the EP if Bitter Sweet is your starting point. It’s not a piecemeal album however, and it certainly gives the impression that this is what Grace was working towards when she released the EP as a taster. The idiosyncrasies of the musical material are complemented by her lyrical concerns, which linger on the awkward and the lonely in the everyday, rather than focussing on the out-and-out bizarre. Isolated weirdoes, pathetic would-be lotharios, a woman abandoning her dreams to the companionship of a conventional relationship… Grace forms her characters in clay of the banal and prosaic, and she seems generally to have some affection for them, although her stereotyping in ‘The Bus Spotter’ is a little unfair – for the record, most of the transport anoraks I’ve known have had long-suffering spouses and healthy circles of friends. To be fair, she may have someone specific in mind, and the portrait is still particular enough to read as though she does. If there is a tension in this song between a generic ‘type’ and the sense of an individual, then it is entirely consistent with her palette, as expressed across the rest of this material. The coming-of-age meditation ‘Beauty Awoken’ also probes at experience through the deployment of archetypes, and the language of the fairy-tale; ‘The Wild’ is equally symbolic, with its imagery of the fall, of exile from the garden, but its roots are watered in the stream of subjective experience. Like Angela Carter, she sees the epic and the mythical in the quotidian, and also like Carter she realises those observations in a beautiful, complex aesthetic, that brings the exotic into proximity with the mundane. Irreducibly particular as every character, tale or subject may be, Grace finds ‘Deep Down Things’ in them all, and I find the way that she teases them out, affectively and verbally, to be both insightful and beautiful.

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