, September 1st, 2011 11:41
It's often not the most 'extreme' or 'difficult' – whatever those words mean - artists that fall between the cracks. There can be nothing sadder, and conversely, nothing more thrilling to stumble across, than great pop languishing in obscurity. By pop I mean: music conversant with reasonably conventional song structures, a seductive way with melody; music that isn't self-consciously abrasive.
Mara Carlyle's long-delayed second album Floreat might be that kind of record, and it deserves a better fate. It's a woozy, sensual swoon, a record that might be mistaken for middle-of-the-road if you didn't quite pick up on the exquisite way it flits between restraint and rapture, or if you heard only the lulling sweetness and not the way that sweetness is spiked with subtle dischord and disquiet. It's a record that reminds me that sometimes what I love most is something that is almost entirely straightforward, but crucially not-quite. Almost acceptable, but just slightly unsettling. Extremes can be fun, cathartic, necessary – but they can also be easy. Sometimes the push-and-pull of something very nearly comforting wreaks much more satisfying devastation.
Carlyle first appeared as a vocalist on Plaid's albums, and Plaid produced her debut, The Lovely, released on Matthew Herbert's Accidental label back in 2004. The Lovely is a wondrous thing, but Floreat is a great leap forwards in terms of songwriting, written and arranged entirely by Carlyle where The Lovely occasionally made seductive use of classical and traditional source material. It's testament to her bloody-mindedness that it's finally being released (on her own label) – signed to EMI imprint Charisma after leaving Accidental, she found herself caught up in the kind of suffocating legal bullshit that frequently does for artists signed to labels convulsed by corporate wrangling.
Floreat witnesses the kind of blossoming its title implies. Unashamedly romantic, it's also a vocal tour-de-force. Carlyle has a gorgeous, elastic voice capable of distractingly honeyed swoops, sweet but never cloying. In 'Bowlface En Provence', a weird, narcotic, insistent, half-pace gallop, she sounds giddy with desire, a kind of delicious vertigo. It builds to a breathtaking not-quite-climax: “I can hardly talk, I can barely sing, I've been screaming with joy – screaming - throwing your name in the air and catching it in my mouth again.” 'Pearl' essays a brilliantly uncool pop, an off-kilter fairground lurch with pointed digs at an appreciative lover: “This boy must be blind if he can't see your gorgeous behind.” In 'Nuzzle' she sings “I won't tell you that I love you, not with words,” so it seems appropriate that 'How It Felt (To Kiss You)' is a wordless eddy of strings, understated slide and keyboard figures that rise that like a skein of bubbles. I think there's a cat purring somewhere in there too.
'King' builds over a stately choral waltz-pulse, and wonderfully queasy orchestration. When Carlyle sings “I once had a king, he unlocked my throat, drew out every note” you think 'this is the sexiest music I've heard since Kate Bush's 'The Sensual World.''
The only thing that doesn't work is 'Weird Girl' – it is, as its title suggests, just a little wincingly self-conscious, a little twee, a little too uncomfortably perky. But maybe that's the point. After all, Carlyle's much too smart to be saccharine. She has a fabulous ability to choose an unexpected, slightly off note - something that takes a chord just out of the ordinary. She's making you feel the weight of everything. These are just love songs, right? Well, sweet nothings always come with a price, and the rapture of Floreat, like its very existence, is hard-won. “You only had to call, and I'd have run across the broken glass, or fought back flames, or whatever it takes just to be near you,” she sings in 'The Devil and Me'' over sparse piano chords, voice a lovely liquid wonder, “I was always here.” Floreat isn't simply a seduction – in the most understated way, it's too intense for that.