Monday, November 5, 2007

battle and victory

i've been a bad blogger lately. i apologize. i picked up some new jobs, and some other ones reached fruition, and i've had barely a minute to write anything but concert reviews. i'd like to make it up to you by telling you about nancy elizabeth cunliffe.

cunliffe, who records as nancy elizabeth, is the newest jewel in the crown of the leaf label, an extraordinarily prescient label where many well-received artists have begun their careers. i (and you, perhaps) know them best as manitoba's spiritual home, the place where his opus up in flames has a home, but the leaf label reaches far and wide, dedicated to unearthing talent anywhere, in any form. in addition to manitoba, boom bip & doseone, efterklang, psapp, and critical faves a hawk and a hacksaw have all released albums through leaf as well. the leaf label maintains its reputation as a diviner of excellence with nancy elizabeth's first long player, battle and victory.

nancy elizabeth is a songstress with an impeccable musical pedigree, her ethereal work instantly generating comparisons to artists like sigur ros and nina nastasia. her songs are spun like merino wool, sheer and light, and are yet heavy, dense, substantial. battle and victory walks a rail, counterbalancing cunliffe's high, thin voice with sweeping, delicate melodies that still resonate with power and forcefulness. central to her sound is a 22 string celtic harp, its plucked notes creating austere, minimalist soundscapes. in addition to the harp, cunliffe wields a bouzouki, harmonium, appalachian dulcimer, and khim, in addition to a much more traditional acoustic guitar, though battle and victory also features percussion and horn sections on some songs, though cunliffe's shimmering string work is always the album's focus. the circumstances surrounding the recording of battle and victory are a significant part of its sober allure as well; cunliffe shut herself up in a 17th-century welsh cottage and a village hall outside manchester, using only the barest of recording equipment to capture her multi-layered sound. the result is an album that charms with its intimate preciousness and still manages to incorporate a tremulous undercurrent of anxiety and intensity.

i find myself imagining a forest when i listen to battle and victory, though it changes as quickly as the album's songs. it is no coincidence that celtic and nordic music has such strong ties to paganism and the supernatural; on battle and victory, as on other, stirring records, it is easy to hear the power of nature in every note. cunliffe's song titles often allude to the natural realm, albeit in circuitous ways, as songs like "i'm like the paper," "8 brown legs," and "coriander" suggest, though "off with your axe" or "the remote past" evoke more of a tolkien feel.

the fantastic is never out of reach on this album, especially for "hey son," one of battle and victory's two singles. cunliffe's dramatics and naturalism have earned her comparisons to radiohead, mogwai, and talk talk, but the clearest point of reference i have for "hey son" is godspeed you! black emperor. while the artists fundamentally unalike, "hey son" builds in a very gybe fashion. beginning with cunliffe's breathy and restrained voice singing over a simple guitar melody, "hey son" reaches a satisfying climax in less than three and a half minutes, as cunliffe adds something new for each verse, starting with a small chorus and including an angular guitar, timpani, and lots of cymbal crashes. it is clearly one of battle and victory's best songs.

i am also quite fond of "i used to try," the album's other single, draped, as it is, in taut strings and a focused, progressive sound, though its neighbor, "off with your axe," is battle and victory's hidden gem. here, cunliffe incorporates more vocal harmonies over a restless guitar, looping it before adding the harp and an off-step delivery that captivates and intrigues. lots of albums have one song that is so unlike the others that it must be the single (i'm thinking of summerteeth, mostly), but "coriander," the "can't stand it" of battle and victory, is not its single. "coriander" is a radical departure from the rest of battle and victory, clothed in a sound more parisian than pixie. a waltzing harmonium and horn section are the song's flesh, and one of the few cuts on the record that doesn't fit into the progressive mold.

battle and victory is a tenacious debut, so often haunting and insubstantial that cunliffe's voice seems to exist on its own. the distance is palpable, no doubt a result of her innovative recording locations, and adds an unexpected depth to the record, again evoking mysterious environments. dark without being brooding or sinister, battle and victory is transportive, an album that inspires creativity as much as enjoyment in the listener.

battle and victory was released in september 2007 by the leaf label. it is available for purchase here.

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