‘The form of countless objects is printed blue on your mind. Take them away at any time and your world would be in pieces, but conversely, in a state where it could be rebuilt.’
Anyone who’s lived alone for a time in a country other than the one in which they grew up – particularly one where the language is not their own – will recognise the feelings that spring from the songs on Rachael Dadd’s new CD After the ant fight. Her time living in and touring Japan has had a marked effect lyrically and, in an indirect sense, musically. Themes of isolation, disorientation, the intensity of emotion generated by separation and distance are all captured here in songs recorded while Rachael was back home in Bristol. ‘Table’ in particular is stunning, setting a concise lyric about clinging to the memory of solid objects and familiar shapes against a Philip Glass-y piece of minimalism that rises to a peak on the back of a just-so mix of piano, harmonium, clarinet and one-take drums, then falls away again. It’s the equal of ‘The wires’, one of the stand-out songs on her last album The world outside is a cupboard, and conjures living ghosts into being as effectively. Rachael’s song writing is atypical – the obvious moves are avoided in favour of the element of surprise, and where others would give the peak reached in ‘Table’ another run through, she chooses not to repeat it and so gives the song the kind of freshness that draws you back for another listen, and another.
Its sleeve appropriately dressed in exquisite ant-depicting needlework, After the ant fight continues where The world outside left off in terms of the metaphorical use of the natural world but in other respects, Rachael has moved on. While The world outside was carefully considered and had the feel of a solo work in spite of its contributors, the new set has a more immediately collaborative feel, with the Bristolian crew of musicians charged with helping Rachael bring her songs to life. You sense a need or desire to bag these songs quickly, without overcooking them. There’s an instrumental richness here and a spontaneous feel to the recording which lifts songs that would have been strong had they only featured voice and piano alone, as others left in that state prove.
The traditional song ‘Two sisters’ shows she can match or out-folk any of the few singers who have been lucky enough to garner some attention outside of the confines of the folk / 21st century folk circuits; it’s beautifully sung and played. She follows it with something adventurously untraditional in the form of ‘Ant and bee’, a successful attempt to break open a new seam or tunnel, leading her impromptu Penguin Café Orchestra along a winding lyrical and melodic path with a vocal that seems deliberately to push away from the way she usually sings. The result sounds roughly like what you might get if you crossed Mummer– or Apple Venus-era XTC with the Björk of Vespertine, and it’s as inventive as either. The metaphorically rich lyric encapsulates the expansion of her vision – ‘everything you thought you ever knew will be changed for good’ – and gleefully concludes with a personal revolution: ‘These six legs they’ll carry me / I’ve turned my back on my queen’. (You can imagine Andy Partridge also dwelling lyrically on ants and bees; after all there was a ‘Ladybird’ on Mummer, while Apple Venus volume two was called Wasp star.)
The denizens of the Penguin Café return for ‘And so it wells up’ where Rachael’s guitar sounds as much like those of the desert wandering Tinariwen as anyone’s. This, ‘Ant and bee’ and many of the other songs (‘After the ant fight’, ‘O wind’, and ‘Following the geese’ recall the orchestral and emotional precision of her Songs from the crypt but all embrace a wider vision of the world and a more confident sense of what can be achieved artistically with a song.
Understandably Rachael Dadd is concentrating on Japan where there is a willing record label (Angel’s Egg) and an appetite for her music, and where perhaps the beauty of it is appreciated for what it is; the kind of cultural overtones that may prejudice how she is perceived over here are not an issue. Even so, she really deserves a larger audience here than is likely to be generated by the support on a national level of Whispering Bob Harris alone. Go and see her play when she does come back home.