Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Helen McCookerybook returns with timely new album The Sea

In late June, the same weekend as I was feverishly working away at my piece on women and music festivals for The F-Word, I received a lovely surprise in the post.

The new Helen McCookerybook album, The Sea, complete with illustrated songbook.

You can tell, not just from the songbook, but from the CD packaging, what a labour of love this album's creation has been: It looks DIY in the best sense, an artefact painstakingly created with a lot of love.

Sonically, this is an album that has a clear and unfussy production that perfectly complements the minimalism of the songs. It seems odd to say it, given Helen's origins in the UK punk scene and post punk scenes of the late 1970s and early to mid 1980s, but the word that springs to mind most often when listening to this collection of songs is 'Gentle'. That said, it is perfectly possible to be gentle but scathing, quiet but raging, fierce but melodic.

Vocally, Helen's voice reminds me a bit of Kirsty MacColl, and the songs themselves have a timeless quality that mean that they could have been classics in a number of different eras from the 1940s onwards. There is the highly evocative 'Summer Days', an ode to summer with a looping guitar and crooned melody, the quirkily Doris Day ish 'Feathers',  and the silvery voiced 'Give Us Another Chance'.

There is also the very catchy and very timely 'Big Brother', a plea to resist the madness of walking unresisting into a cage of surveillance. A gilded cage hung with all sorts of bright sparkly things and bells and whistles, but a cage nonetheless. "You think you're free as a bird: Open your eyes" she cautions. Set alongside Noga Erez's recent take on social media addiction and Tacocat's take on the impact of the smartphone on modern day relationships, we do now appear to be entering an age where people are interrogating the recent and very fast impact modern technology is having on our lives. Which can only be a good thing.

With this in mind, it is worth pointing out that Helen McCookerybook has a very good line in wry observational, often very poignant songs, about relationships going wrong. 'Don't Be Silly, He Said' has a classic feel to it, with a gentle rolling melody and fierce and knowing lyrics detailing the duplicity of a marriage where one partner is straying and the other suspects that this is so. There's also the hauntingly beautiful, wry and vulnerable, 'Happy Ever After Man', a jaunty tune coupled with poignant lyrics. This is not a love song in the conventional sense: It is romantic disappointment, thinking you've found The One, and then discovering that you haven't.

'Who's That Behind The Camera Lens' is, by contrast, a spooky and unsettling affair, which in some respects has a similar lyrical starting point to Siouxsie and the Banshees 'Red Light', in that in both cases the camera becomes both a lyrical character and a sinister voyeur. In this case though, it's not a fashion model but a woman at the seaside who is being imprisoned in the lens, adding a chilling dimension to the jollity of the seaside holiday.

The title track, 'The Sea', is an absolute tour de force of a song. Opening with a  mournful choir, intoning 'Go home... to your war zone', this beautiful and haunting song uses complex lyrical imagery  evoking the peaceful scenery and calm sea with the raging waters and the 'monsters in the deckchairs' who 'damn you to hell'. The arrangements are gorgeous, which only enhances what is a mournful testimony to the past couple of years of inaction and folly when dealing with the refugee crisis. Following on from Helen's collaboration with the Charlie Tipper Conspiracy, 'Femme Fatale', late last year (which was sold in aid of Refugee Action) it is thoughtful and powerful.

'Women Of The World' is a gentle, positive, feminist, call to arms. It has a timeless feel to it so that you could  almost imagine it being used to summon women workers to the ARP in the 1940s just as much as you could imagine it being taken up as a feminist anthem in the late 1960s. A call to 'peaceful arms', it fits nicely between the folky but fierce marching song that is Pretty Girls Make Graves' 'Parade' and the biting post punk long look at history of Martha and the Muffins 'Women Around The World At Work'. I know that this song will definitely endure.

The album ends with a yearning for a utopian future via 'Think Of A Brand New World', but this is no hippy vision, just a quiet wish for something better; What, she asked, if we could start the world all over again? And do it properly this time.

A dream to live by.

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