Saw three self-styled girls with guitars at the weekend, and each was great, and together – guitar, banjo, percussion, melody and harmony – they were stunning. It was down to members of the audience to pick out of a hat (actually a tin) who would play in what order. Each a woman with a guitar (or a shoulder-straining banjo), but each with a unique approach, and none with any honorable but musically off-putting air of having an axe to grind, of the kind that might once have been suggested by the collective tag. For them at least the battle has long since been won.
Rachael Dadd was first out of the tin. She has a voice with the timbre and purity of a bell, and you hear in it an emotional and somehow moral force. A churchbell chime, but not constrained by that, instead running musically and poetically free. You hear this on the follow-up to her piano-based Moth in the motor mini-album, the guitar-oriented Elephee EP, and well, long-term readers will know what a fan I am.
Kate Stables, the artist formally known as This Is The Kit, is Rachael’s partner in Whalebone Polly. On top there are her wonderfully windblown melodies ululating in the air, while underneath her slightly fuzzy, muddy guitar mounts a gentle attack. She plays her new single ‘Moon’, a perfect miniature, for which we the audience are invited to sound Kate’s opening note. On vinyl it’s expanded into an equally flawless full-band version; its flip ‘Treehouse’ moves with similar grace but also a countryesque twang. This Is The Kit’s album Wriggle out the restless is due for October release, and if it’s all as finely crafted as these songs, it will be great.
In a live setting Rozi Plain is perhaps a little more diffident, maybe less confident in her ability to stand toe to toe with her friends. But she shouldn’t worry, because about half of what she does is jaw-dropping in its beautiful idiosyncracy. It’s not that she’s other-worldly, as you might think from listening to her Fence album Inside over here; in fact she’s actually rather earthy. The first song she plays has the sparseness of the Young Marble Giants, but after that, she draws them entirely from a world of her own. They’re gentle and surprising and softly, almost unintentionally inventive. She played lots of new songs and I hope they all see the light of day soon.
In the second half of the evening, each of the trio played a song to a theme, and happily for a man in possession of a birdsongs blog, the theme was geese. You can catch Rachael’s and Kate’s geese over at Nightingales now; I don’t think Rozi’s committed hers to disc yet, so in its absence, I’ve settled on the lovely, spiralling ‘Roof rook crook crow’ from Inside over here.
In his comment on my first post about Rachael Dadd back in August 2007, my truffle-hunting friend and honorary professor of pop Tim Hopkins said that ‘Rozi Plain looks like she’ll do something jaw-droppingly great in a minute’. Well, just as Tim foresaw, Rozi Plain has indeed done something jaw-droppingly great, and it comes in the form of her long player for Fence, Inside over here. In those rare spaces that the business of Christmas left, I played it whenever I could. Now that the decks have been cleared, I finally have the chance to tell you about it.
Jaw-dropping in more ways than one. It’s the disc’s second song, ‘Stolen shark’, which makes you sit up and pay close attention. The opening line – ‘It all came from snagging my jumper on its tooth’ – hooks you as surely as the character in Rozi’s narrative has been clamped and chomped by her fictional shark. A wiry electric guitar chases down acoustic rhythms as the tale unfolds and Rozi and Rachael Dadd harmonise over the character’s grisly end – ‘I could feel every bite cuz I was still alive’.
‘Stolen shark’ is followed by ‘Barbs and velcro’, which reinforces the notion that Rozi’s voice has similar tints and shades as Karen Dalton’s, though inevitably she does not yet sing with the same weight in her voice. Conversely ‘Barbs and velcro’ is also as close as Rozi comes to straight-ahead pop, the song pushed along by a joyful running rhythm which is at perfect odds with the blueness of the melody. There are a lot singers being touted about now for their ability to be pop but something other, or idiosyncratic but sufficiently mainstream for mass consumption, so many that it’s hard to get around to hear them all and establish what I strongly suspect to be the case – that few if any are half as melodically and harmonically gifted as Rozi Plain. Not only that, but also as undistracted in their focus on the music, by which I mean that if you took away the world, Rozi would deliver you more or less the same sort of song as she does with the world and all its distractions very much in place.
Her music has a coastal sense of space and time – you can almost hear the slow lap of waves on ‘Foot out’. That sense of unhurried openness also comes through on the letter-delivery blues of ‘The post’ in spite of the cryptic lyric. ‘Knives and forks’ too has a steely metronomic tick, a clockwork flow against which Rozi sets more deliciously dreamy harmony. Lyrically and stylistically ‘Roof rook crook crow’ is not far off something that Kevin Ayers might have wittily interpreted from a dream he had in 1969, or that Syd Barrett might have conjured out of his confusion around the time of The madcap laughs. But neither of those gents could layer up harmony like Rozi Plain, who turns her song into an ever-ascending spiral iced with François Marry’s trumpet.
Finally, there is to finish, ‘Fruit’, a song whose pointedly mundane lyric Rozi has given an impossibly sad melody. Amazing, what you can do with two voices, a guitar and clarinet, and a shaky pot of salt.
You have the chance to catch the magic combination of Rozi Plain and Rachael Dadd at the Slaughtered Lamb in London on Thursday 29th January.