“Re-Box”, Hannah Peel’s first recorded musical release, caught the imagination of listeners and critics. Covering 80s pop and new wave in incongruous styles has been done before – Nouvelle Vague for one - but Peel’s versions were entrancing rather than entertaining novelty, slowed down with just solitary voice over antique musical box accompaniment. The vinyl on Static Caravan has long sold-out but the EP is still available as a digital download.
And when it came to recording her first album, it was Static Caravan who put her in touch with Mike Lindsay of Tuung. It’s an inspired pairing which makes “The Broken Wave” an expansive and absorbing record. “Strings by Nitin Sawhney” on two tracks shows just how much more developed this record is than the earlier solo bedroom recording project .
Like the wave of the title, the album starts with rising swells and foamy peaks before gently melting away into softer, wispier streams and trickles. Throughout there’s a clever interplay between the quirky and the conventional, between ‘experimental’ folktronica and a straightforward singer-songwriter-pop with orchestral stylings. So “You Call This Your Home” billows with orchestra pomp; “The Almond Tree” skitters on jittery piano and wonky drums. And whatever the arrangement, throughout it is the percussive rhythms and Peel’s voice that are foregrounded. The former sets the tempo for each movement of the breaking wave, the latter holds the record together.
Much is made of her peripatetic early years and roots – born in Ireland, raised in Yorkshire, educated in Liverpool – but it’s rare to hear a strong unequivocal trace of any these places in her voice. In ‘Don’t Kiss the Broken One’ there is a near-spoken interlude in which she reverts to plain-spoken, earthy, flat vowels but it’s a passing moment. For the most she sings in an airy, higher register not unlike Judee Sill or Sandy Denny: light-as-air fresh and clear, almost girlish but never timid.
The tail-end of the album is formed of quieter, more reflective ballads but it doesn’t feel like a record running out of energy or ideas. ‘Cailin Deas Cruite Na Mbo’ (which translates as ‘the pretty maid who milks the cow’) reverts to the music box simplicity of her earlier single. ‘The Parting Glass’ is a haunting song of leaving over singing bowl-like synth pulses and chimes. The record is a finely textured journey in which the often maudlin themes are kept in check by the bright, breezy delivery and inventive embellishments.
Another achievement of the album is to make it feel part of the Static Caravan family of folk mavericks and experimenters but equally able to appeal to a much wider listenership. Hannah Peel is planning more music box covers (I suggested this) but whichever song she chooses, it should be this album and her own song-writing that continues to turn heads.
Hannah Peel The Broken Wave [BUY]