21 Jun 2014
Firefay and Alison O’Donnell "Anointed Queen"
Reviewed by Grey Malkin (The Hare & The Moon)
Alison O'Donnell should need no introduction to anyone with even the vaguest interest in both psychedelic and acid folk’s back pages. Her background in such luminary and legendary bands as Mellow Candle and Flibbertigibbet alone should be a recommendation in itself to all Active Listener readers and that’s before consideration of her recent sterling work with modern wyrdsters United Bible Studies and The Owl Service. ’Anointed Queen’, with Alison ably backed by Firefay’s masterful psych folk, is an album that is at turns unpredictable, chilling, heart-breaking and exhilarating; it easily stands shoulder to shoulder with her best work.
Opening the album, ‘Living on the Concrete Path’s storytelling narrative is backed by a hallucinatory waltz to describe a gritty and real life tale of homelessness. Psych guitar patterns finish the song as our protagonists head to the next cardboard box bed. ‘Night Spell’ is a ghostly tango, reminiscent of Marc Almond's ‘La Magia’ period, flamenco guitars and haunting vocal backing creating an atmosphere of yearning and mystery. ‘Under The Church Tower’s Brechtian accordion and acoustic guitar builds to a rousing stomp and frames O’Donnell’s tale of five little maids. Again an air of something slightly unsettling abides; the interlude of fiddle and Alison’s spectral choir only adding to this tension. ‘White Lilies’ electric guitar puts us pleasingly back in trad folk rock territory again. No-one currently does this better – not your Steeleyes or Fairports and it is a veritable joy to hear. Listen to the final fading reverberation of fiddle and voice and tell me you don’t agree. Recounting a journey back to a more rustic, rural life following a spell in the city, the song brims with life and solace. ‘Hart Felt’s accordion led acid trip is the most overtly psychedelic moment, reverbed vocals and analogue keyboards add an almost Eastern tinge. This is apt as the lyrics tell of one Syd Barrett, fallen magus of the early Floyd. ‘The Day The Winged Fury Came’ starts with a funereal bell before harpsichord adds an almost Elizabethan, deeply English touch to the tale. Midway a veritable storm of fuzz guitar echoes and crashes into proceedings, howling into the void before once again the bell tolls. It's at once both chilling and enthralling; a sepia photograph set to music. It is in fact inspired by a WWII bombing of a shopping centre and its aftermath, O’Donnell having taken inspiration from a relative’s published poem about the incident.
Indeed the musical backing on this album needs special mention; it’s both hugely creative and descriptive, adding flesh, muscle and tone to Alison’s stories and words without once overpowering or over embellishing. Inspired by the 2012 riots across England, ‘Come All Ye Malcontents’ fiddle led jig starts as more straight ahead folk rock reminiscent of the Fairport’s best although O'Donnell's lyrics and vocal performance mark this out as very much her show. Her multi tracked vocals at the close lift the song into new dramatic heights and a cosmic almost krautrock keyboard takes the song into unexpected territory. It is these unusual and inventive touches that make the band such a good match for O'Donnell's searching and unique take on the folk medium. ‘Strawberry Wine’ begins with a swirling drone before finger cymbals and picked guitar lead us into a medieval procession via 1960s Greenwich Village; there is then arguably the most amazing vocal break this side of O’Donnell’s work in Mellow Candle which leads us down the rabbit hole into deep psych territory again. Alison in Wonderland indeed. ‘Blood on His Horns’ addresses the issue of bullfighting, raising images of the sheer horror these creatures go through in the interest of ‘entertainment’. ‘Golden Carpet’ competes (in this writer’s opinion) for best track in the album. Almost chanson and musical-like in style it sparkles eerily across sympathetic and restrained choired backing; a broken hearted dream. O’Donnell’s voice is as clear as glass and ends in a shimmer that is both heartrending and unsettling. Closer 'The End is the Beginning’s sinister majestic drones and Floydian feedback is both beautiful and unpredicted; indeed one is left reflecting on the sheer level of creativity on this album both vocally and musically.
Released by the splendid Stone Tape Recordings (home of Greanvine, the aforementioned Owl Service and many other fine artists) the album is available from the 23rd June both as a download and in CD format in a beautifully illustrated six panel sleeve. Recordings as inventive and truly beautiful as this are scarce these days; do not miss out on this one. All hail the anointed queen.
Read Grey Malkin's interview with Alison here.