41:18 min • Rubyworks • March 12, 2012
Few people would self title an album to make a statement, but that is exactly what Irish born singer/songwriter Wallis Bird has done with her third album. Recorded in part in a communist radio station in Berlin, a haunted house on a cliff in Ireland during the worst snowstorm for 30 years, and in her own flat in Brixton during the London riots, the album is every bit as wild, unpredictable and diverse as Wallis herself. So all we can expect from Wallis Bird’s 3rd studio album is Wallis herself, and on this album we see all of her.
As a child, Wallis had an accident with a lawnmower and lost all her fingers. The doctors managed to sew four back on, meaning she has to play her guitar upside down with her left hand, and as she can’t play written chords she has to write her own, resulting in a raw folk sound unlike any of her peers. I myself am a sucker for a good opening line. So when I pressed play on Wallis Bird and she proclaimed,
You don’t know shit – and ain’t it better not to know it?
I was hooked. It’s an opening line with balls, which can only be a good thing. What follows is a haunting track, beautifully produced, in places conjuring up Ani DiFranco and in others James Blake. In fact, the echoing, ghostly backing vocals and claps in the second verse, alongside the beautiful acoustic guitar made me wish the opening track would go on forever. This is late night folk, in a dark room with your window cracked. We’re teased with reverb, vocoders and electronics, and just as I want more than a tease we’re thrown headlong into ‘I Am So Tired Of That Line’, an up tempo blast on stomping folk that shakes me. It has a groove that recalls Melissa Etheridge and Ani DiFranco, and it packs the first proper punch on the album.
The single ‘Encore’ follows, and despite being the most commercial song on the album, making it an obvious single, it still manages to thump its way through its pop chorus before her raspy vocals take the reigns to ride us to the end. It’s worth mentioning that fellow Irish Indie Electro singer/songwriter Robotnik has also remixed this song in a version exclusive to her official website, transforming it into a Summer anthem. It floats above the original while retaining some of its natural bombastic edge mixed in with some sweet ambient electronica.
Take my hand ,
This worlds gone mad,
And I’m trying to salvage an existence.
She sings on the brilliant ‘Take Me Home’, and the track’s frenetic climax sounds like Delores O’Riorden being produced by Patrick Wolf. With its beautiful melody and picky acoustic beginnings, it’s in a fight for the best track on the album. This is my kind of folk. Her voice is raw, the soundscape is intoxicating and the song builds to a heady folk-dance hybrid. Then,
Sometimes screaming keeps me breathing…
we’re told on the thrashing ‘Ghosts Of Memories’, another song that builds and falls with acoustic verses and a chorus that rocks harder than any folk singer I have ever heard. Having seen Wallis live, this is no surprise. She plays an acoustic guitar with the force of someone in a rock band playing an electric guitar, and is every inch the rock star during performance, yet every drop the charming, honest, hippy folk singer in-between. Seeing her support South American instrumentalists Rodrigo y Gabriela at Brixton Academy was an exhilarating experience, but also gave me an insight into her influences when she proclaimed “I was here for the Rob Zombie gig … was anybody else?”. As the room fell deathly silent, apart from the people who were already rudely talking through her set, she seemed to realise that her eclecticism was lost on the positively secretariat crowd and muttered, “Obviously not”. It was the moment I realised Wallis and I were probably the only people in the room who knew who Rob Zombie was. It also made me realise why the electric nature of her music, even played live, was somewhat lost on the audience she was performing for.
In fact, as each song on the album develops you realise its impossible to categorise the sound of it. The influences are so far reaching that, while at times her feet are firmly in folk, the album never stays in one place long enough to feel like a folk album. ‘Who’s Listening Now’ is firmly in Ani DiFranco territory, whilst ‘But I’m Still Here, I’m Still Here’ has echoes of Jacques Brel, not only in its beautifully melancholic lyrics, but also its lilting waltz melody invoking an otherworldly twinkle. It is a song with a sophisticated core and with lyrics to match which leaves you feeling haunted. ‘Feathered Pocket’ is more what I would expect from commercial acoustic folk and makes me think of spring, Sixpence None The Richer and episodes of Dawson’s Creek – none of which I consider to be a bad thing.
The album closes with ‘Polarise’, a song that again stumbles into late night folk. The guttural cry of Wallis’ voice is once again unleashed and at one point breaks out into a distorted celestial choir, making this album closer both raw and innovative. The hidden outro that follows, with a piano and a rotary dial telephone plus the sounds of a storm and somebody quietly playing a saw, reminds me of both ‘Count To 6 And Die’ by pop-metal genius Marilyn Manson in its unsettling beauty, and also Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley’s haunting burlesque concept album Evelyn Evelyn. In fact, it’s this unconventional production throughout the record that captures the visceral nature of Bird’s live performance.
Like all great albums, listening to Wallis Bird feels like a journey. It’s a tumultuous and epic 41 minute journey I have taken repeatedly, and will happily take again. I actually find it hard to believe that until a few days ago I hadn’t heard of Wallis Bird, but from her charming, energetic live performance to her late night folk-rock third album, she’s someone I will be keeping an eye on in future.