Monday, April 3, 2017

album review: 'golden eagle' by holly macve

So I've been told by a lot of my international audience that they tend to be a little perplexed at the larger amount of country I cover in comparison with other critics. And that is worth calling out, because almost by design country is a highly regional genre, born out of American traditions and archetypes that haven't really crossed over around the world in the same way. Sure, Canada has a country scene - and to some extent so does Australia, driven out of the rougher, wilder frontiers - but go to Europe? 

Well, country music does exist in pockets across the Atlantic, but remember what I said about how country music to this day has a terrible web presence problem? Unfortunately, this is still very true internationally as well, and thus without good grassroots promoting, it's hard to hear about acts coming up in the UK or the rest of Europe. And thus I'm pretty happy that my audience decided to recommend the debut album of Holly Macve. Born in Ireland and growing up in the UK, she came up in a musical family and seems to have gravitated towards the vintage-leaning, smoky flavors of country that's popular in the indie scene right now. Now I've covered a lot of variations of this style, from Angel Olsen to Lindi Ortega, from Cheryl Desere'e to Whitney Rose, and I was curious where Holly Macve's English influence would shift the music, perhaps inject a heavier folk touch or a slightly different instrumental palette. Either way, I was in uncharted territory when I picked up her debut album Golden Eagle - what did I find?

Honestly, I'm not really a fan of this. Yeah, this did catch me off-guard, but I won't say in a good way, because I didn't find Golden Eagle enjoyable at all. In fact, I found it a lot more tedious and frustrating that I was expecting for this sort of country record, with some pretty serious issues across the board, from writing to performance to the overall sound. I'm not going to precisely say it's bad - I can definitely hear the audience for it, and you'll understand why I'm saying that momentarily - but it's definitely not for me, at least on this project.

And yeah, we need to start with Holly Macve herself and the fundamentals here: her voice just does not work for me whatsoever. And initially it was hard to put my finger on it... until we started getting the breathy, misty multi-tracking, and then it hit me: Lana Del Rey. The same languid, tremulous delivery that's walking the thin line of sincerity, just with a thicker country accent that tries - and fails - to obscure how often she slips off-key, trying to capture that same sort of old-school vintage flavor and yet rarely selling the deeper emotional intensity or texture that can make Angel Olsen or Karen Jonas or Courtney Marie Andrews compelling. Now to Macve's credit, she seems to have a better idea of her range than Del Rey does, and thus she avoids the baby-voiced crooning that I have found so intolerable about Lana Del Rey in the past... but when you also realize that this record is going to take its sweet time and never ratchet up the intensity or kick into a decent rollick, I resigned myself for a long, frustrating listen cribbing from many of the same desaturated textures that I found so tedious on Ultraviolence.

Okay, that's not entirely fair - when this record does build a little energy, it can be pleasant enough. 'Heartbreak Blues' coasts on some liquid tonal interplay that's not bad, the added strings fill up a little more of the mix against the acoustic blur on 'Shell' - easily the only thing I actually like on that song, 'Timbuktu' picks up a hint of a bassline and drums on the hook, and 'No One Has The Answer' probably has the most defined groove of the entire album. And I'll give credit to 'The Corner In My Mind' for actually having some darkness in its smoky vibe. And yet even with all of that, it's not like this record builds up any sense of momentum or greater texture - the pianos are all muted and softened, the acoustic guitar lines blur together, and by the time the last two six minute ballads kick in for the closing tracks, you're going to start feeling that this project is a lot longer than it really is. I'd argue this could have been avoided if the melodies felt a little more complex or coalesced into stronger hooks or added more detailed or textured instrumentation, but the truth is that this style of slower, more contemplative, more stripped back instrumentation is intended to draw more attention to Macve and her writing...

And if that's the case... well, there's work that needs to be done here. Let's start with the technical issues, because for as barebones as much of the writing can feel in its structure and poetry, there's no excuse for so many rhymes to be dropped. I get that it's intended to make it feel like Macve is untangling her rambling thoughts, but it also has the side effect of making this record drag even further, and that's the last thing she should want. But then we get to the content... and I'm not really all that impressed, mostly because any sense of narrative or storytelling feels pretty thin, with Macve almost always feeling like a passive actor in her own story. The record begins with a return home - which for no explained reason she is not welcomed by her father - raising the spectre of a sin in her past that her current paramour can look beyond. But even that relationship doesn't seem like it's going to last, as the next two songs seem to show Macve warning that she's going to end things thanks to her own lack of trust thanks to baggage from another guy in her past... but it's not actually something she opts to do of her own accord. That's one reason why I found 'Shell' so profoundly frustrating - she clearly doesn't think she's in a fit state to be in a relationship and is trying to sabotage things with the silent treatment instead of actually taking responsibility and ending it - in other words, it's melodramatic as all hell, but the understated framing makes it seem like Macve's decisions are dramatically justified... which they're not. This isn't maturity, it's stringing this guy along because you don't want to deal with the consequences of the breakup, so when in the next few songs she cuts and runs and blames it on her own fear and damage, or on 'No One Has The Answer' says that nobody really can justify their actions or purpose... yeah, I'm sorry, having been on the receiving end of this a few too many times, I'm not really sympathetic, especially when on the title track she frames it all as "setting this guy free". 

And this arc maybe could have worked and had some melancholic power if it at all felt like Macve was learning something or moving past her fears and old love, or facing real consequences beyond just dumping this new guy, but her refusal to engage with any of it instead has her blow something that might have worked down the line, which she even references on the title track. It's probably not Macve's intention and maybe this is some of my own personal baggage coming through here, but all of it feels incredibly manipulative, self-absorbed and self-destructive in a way that this low-key, understated dramatic framing can't justify, especially when if she needed time to process her issues, the guy probably would have understood - he's certainly framed that way on 'Shell'! And while I get that we're really not supposed to sympathize with Macve directly, we are supposed to see the drama in her struggle - and maybe it's a factor of her delivery or the presentation or the basic-as-hell writing, but I'm not on board with this one, not in the order and arc these songs are presented here. But even if you look at this record in pieces it's still utterly lacking in momentum and I'm not remotely crazy about the very muted production or Macve's delivery - I've heard comparisons to Patsy Cline, but Cline had a deeper core of intensity to match her material, something that feels oddly absent here. All of that said, if I separate my own issues with the content i can see the appeal and as a whole it's never so much bad as it feels anathema to how I'd handle a similar situation, and I don't see the level of artifice that has alienated me from Lana Del Rey in the past. As such... light 5/10, hard to recommend from me but if anything I said intrigues you it's worth a listen. Otherwise... I'm sure there's more quality in UK country, but I'm not hearing it here.

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