People who don’t think like critics sometimes assail them for their obsessions with comparison and reference. They make a point, a marginal one, but a point. If the search for a box to put an artist’s work in sabotages the ability or desire to hear the work itself for what it is – Houston, we have a problem. As someone whose mind works critically my beef is more with people with cloth ears who make facile comparisons based on limited experience, shitty taste or received information … so there. I also don't think the wrestling between Apollonian and Dionysian impulses requires a winner, just a good match.
Okay, that preface was provoked by my experience with Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose, the debut full-length album from a twenty-one year old artist from Newcastle, England named Beth Jeans Houghton. She and her band the Hooves of Destiny make music that forces you to hear it on its own terms. Comparisons I’ve read of Houghton’s music to artists like Nico and Laura Marling left me wondering if I was listening to the same record. Houghton's soprano, by turns breathy, piercing, sweet is an altogether different instrument compared to Nico or Marling's altos. Nor are her songwriting and arranging tendencies especially similar. Another frequent comparison, to Joni Mitchell, makes some sense. And that presented a bit of a conundrum because I’m not much of Joni Mitchell fan, and I really enjoy YTCN. Proving only that art I’m not nuts about can inspire art I dig.
I enjoy Beth Jeans Houghton’s work as pure musical pleasure. Her lyrics are obtuse – imagistic, but not always communicative – but her songs are richly melodic and she and her band adorn them with varied and imaginative instrumental support. The Hooves are especially valuable as harmony singers, and while they do a nice job in live performance (if YouTube is any indication), their role here is a little marginalized by the sheer volume and variety of parts that Houghton herself plays – for she is at the heart of the execution of this music, beyond simply writing and singing the songs. At twenty-one she’s already an auteur (she’s even responsible for the artwork for YTCN). Producer Ben Hiller ably assists Houghton – his credits include production for Blur’s Think Tank.
On album opener “Sweet Tooth Bird” alone Houghton plays acoustic guitar, ukulele, piano, organ, timpani, and vibes, as well as singing lead and backup vocals. “Bird” and the following track “Humble Digs” feature a consistent thread in Houghton’s arrangement sensibility; she loves short, focused interludes, some of them bridges with vocals, some of them simply instrumental segments connecting verse and chorus. But these interludes are never gratuitous; they have natural grace and integrate seamlessly into the arrangements.
“Dodecahedron” borrows some of the phrasing from David Bowie’s ‘Young Americans” – Bowie’s Hunky Dory era music informs Houghton’s aesthetic throughout, as does the chamber pop of Vashti Bunyan and the orchestral flourishes of early Kate Bush. But Houghton is not hemmed in by any style, era or idiom. On “Atlas” she sinks into a groove not unlike the Dirty Projectors. Driven by the double drumming of Hooves Ed Blazey and Dav Shiel, “Atlas” is part Afro-pop, part Bo Diddley meets Bow Wow Wow propulsion. The lyric suggests that “red wine and whiskey are no good for me” while contrasting Houghton’s travels with those of an older intimate.
On “Nightswimmer” Houghton sounds ready to dismiss a lover (“I can only hope he’ll go out with the tide”), while the accompanying music evokes vintage Cocteau Twins. There’s something of the Velvets’ “Stephanie Says” in the lilt of the rhythm guitar on “Liliputt," which also demonstrates the sonorous beauty of the string quartet (cellist Ian Burdge, violist Bruce White and violinists Sally Herbert and Everton Nelson) Houghton employs with some frequency on YTCN. The strings blend beautifully with Houghton’s jagged, guttural electric guitar and spectral, romantic piano fills on “Franklin Benedict.” Houghton’s proclamation of love is at once reluctant and spirited; her lyrics court the absurd and the evocative like vintage Marc Bolan.
‘Carousel” evokes the compositional sensibility of Stephin Merritt. Wary of betrayal, Houghton issues a restless farewell as the string players stir things to a conclusion. A “hidden” track, actually something of a snippet, emerges after a few silent seconds - kissing the program goodnight with a jolt of Pogues-like folk-punk. It’s an appropriate end to an album that’s full of twist, turns, and enchanting surprises throughout.