This album cannot be appreciated at a low volume or absorbed fully within the first listen. I have to admit that it washed over me somewhat the first time round; but despite its solo-styled core there is quite the canvas of music to digest. The overall picture is an unvaried one at first glance but once you start to appreciate the numerous turns in the brush scattered throughout, things really start to come to life.
The beating heart of Fenne Lily’s debut album On Hold comes from two things. Firstly the mastery of lyrical simplicity. Anyone who has seen the film Don’t Look Back will remember the scene where Bob Dylan and Donovan play a song to each other in a hotel room. Donovan decides to perform ‘To Sing For You’ which has a tenth of Dylan’s poetry, but combines an emotive and sparse selection of phrases alongside a waltzing melody. Together with the gentle rhymes it makes for a small, beautiful and perfectly formed song very much in the ilk of this album’s forerunner ‘Top To Toe’ which has attracted so much admiration. The ability to put together something so lean, evocative and musically memorable is consistently shown from start to finish on this album.
Ever since seeing Fenne Lily play to a handful of people in The Louisiana cellar basement years ago, she has shown the same unflinching bareness of soul with each booking that followed. This is the second characteristic which is so integral to her music. Much like the album Moon Pix by Cat Power; the composition is subtle and understated but the conviction in her delivery is overtly felt and dials up the impact and intrigue of each song. Unfortunately, there has been a production decision here for a excessively close vocal sound, presumably to capture an intimate feel? This is unnecessary and the amplified inhalations are a bit distracting at times.
The short opening track ‘Car Park’ sets the mood for the LP immediately with its spaciously resonant tone, slow snare taps and softly sung reflective and personal lyrics; in many ways it feels like the opening track on Interpol’s ‘Turn On The Bright Lights’. There is a similar feel of urban lament on many of the songs, sprinkled with instances of hope and determination.
‘Three Oh Nine’ steps up the pace and magnitude of the music with slow crunching, palm-muted chord strikes. You find yourself attentively drawn into the story within the song by its honesty: “it’s a first for me, it’s a pain I need” and the ambiguity of what its specifically referring to. Its dynamics culminate gradually and shift the album into full swing.
The attention to detail in the surrounding composition becomes all the more apparent in the following two songs. There is enough consistency to create a truly immersive feeling but ‘What’s Good’ for instance interjects small piano segments while in the peripheries of the music are slightly contorted noises akin to 60’s era Radiophonic workshop. ‘The Hand You Deal’ couples its noticeably smoother plucking of the guitar string with a melismatic lead vocal. In the latter part of the song, the drum beat switches into more of a pop sound you’d associate with one of Rae Morris’s gentler tracks.
The acoustic strums of ‘More Than You Know’ have an Americana folk hint to them. The overall feel is a melancholy one but with an almost defiant jauntiness. The following track ‘On Hold’ conversely switches to the electric and is reminiscent of Courtney Barnett’s ‘Depreston’ with its narrative approach and gritty texture especially with the fuzz guitar that dips in towards the end. The following ‘Top to Toe’ is a pleasant foot off the pedal with all its buoyancy and vocal pirouettes.
‘Bud’ is a great display of Fenne’s seemingly effortless ability in the higher register and feels like a sister song to ‘More Than You Know’. ‘Brother’ much in contrast to ‘The Hand You Deal’ has a staccato plucked melody line on the acoustic guitar. There is a lullaby bubbling below the surface from the opening bars and a 60’s hippy folk likeness you could associate with Jefferson Airplane. It’s a beautiful and crisp tune which I feel would have served well as the penultimate track.
‘For A While’ is by no means a bad song but seems to be driven against its will into being the albums crescendo. It’s the only song where I feel some of the rhymes are too closely packed and stunt the flow rather than facilitate it. ‘Bud’ or ‘More Than You Know’ would have sat better in its place as they ascend more naturally and would better suit the extra layers added for the intended big finish. This is an album full of gentle touches and slow builds; so the caking on of gravitas here is unnecessary and removes rather than adds to the effect.
‘Car Park (Overflow)’ which is presumably an early demo of the opening track pops up like ‘Her Majesty’ off Abbey Road in the closing moments. It’s a reminder that at the core of the music is a succinct and elegant songwriting skill coupled with an indisputably passionate and genuine delivery.
The band and producer on this record have built a creative and fascinating world around these songs, but even at their bare bones the sentiment and craft still carry significant weight.
Fenne Lily’s debut album On Hold is self-released on 6th April.