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Emmy The Great
First Love Darren Lee , February 4th, 2009 13:06

You'll no doubt have your reasons for being suspicious of Emma-Lee Moss, AKA Emmy The Great. That self-aggrandizing moniker for starters, which invites obvious derision; the arbitrary pigeon-holing into that increasingly meaningless catch-all anti-folk, which seems to encompass everyone with an acoustic guitar that never appeared on the bill for the Newport Folk Festival in 1967. And, though class envy is of course an ugly and undignified thing, that faintly rankling air of privilege which hangs over this privately-educated, disconcertingly pretty, precociously talented songwriter. But leave your inverted snobbery at the door and this debut album might just win you over with its ramshackle charms and poetic evocation of twenty something dislocation and ennui.

First Love is world-wise but crucially never world-weary. Its default tone is bittersweet, in that the melodies provide the saccharine, and the barbed lyricism serves up the bitter aftertaste. This is best seen on '24', which employs a gorgeously lilting vocal refrain to witheringly dismiss a Jack Bauer-obsessed boyfriend whose on-screen hero has "done more in a minute than you've achieved in your entire life". Both opener 'Absentee' and 'Easter Parade' interpolate religious anthems, but beneath the celestial euphoria of the tunes lurks a sobering reality check about mortality which could be lifted straight from Richard Dawkins: "there's no Arcadia, no Albion, no Jerusalem / and there's no pastures green beneath all of this / there's earth, and there's ash and there's blood". Recent single 'We Almost Had A Baby', meanwhile, hides a scheming tale of faking a pregnancy in order to get one over a musician ex beneath a deceptively jaunty hook.

At times, the hushed intimacy and erudite turn of phrase ("you are still not Charles Bukowski, and I am not Diane Cluck") recall those early Belle and Sebastian records and the blissful way they managed to conjure up an aesthete alternative reality. At others, Emmy displays a disarming emotional candour about love and relationships which suggests Billy Bragg at his most lovelorn. The album's two stand-out tracks showcase its author's talent for using voguish pop culture references as oblique metaphors for the human condition. The title track reinterprets the chorus of Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah' as a defiant rebuke to a feckless lover, building from a restrained purr to a stirring crescendo: take note, Alexandra Burke. 'MIA' is ostensibly about the ambiguous pronunciation of a certain Sri Lankan hipster's name, but listen closer and the lyric details an unfurling tragedy and the raw numbness of initial grief, all set to the most exquisite of melodies.

Those for whom a visit to a nightspot called Twee As Fuck (this does actually exist) constitutes the equivalent of a night out in one of Dante's nine circles of hell, or who consider collaborating with Los Campesinos! one of the few crimes which still merits the death penalty will probably not take kindly to First Love's none-so-whimsical folk. And granted, there are occasional lapses into smother-me-with-a-pillow mimsiness, such as on the faux country lament 'Everything Reminds Me Of You'. But for the most part this is a big-hearted debut of scalpel-sharp wit and arresting poignancy, with some surprisingly profound things to say about issues both big and small.