The Last Battle
Wigan-born Cunliffe summons a riot of beauty, from a track that is Dancing music…straight from her sleepless, thought-provoking nights, to your brain.
The Last Battle is available at:
The album Dancing is available at:
IT is the subject and issues around the female voice that once again…
comes to mind; today particularly. I have gone into detail before about the limitation one faces when encountering a solo voice: the build-up and inevitable limitlessness. The men have a job on their hands trying to supersede and avoid expectation and lazy comparisons; with many being penned in and written off within a few moments of their careers beginning. For the female artist, there is a similar pressure. I think in 2013 there has been as little mobility and curiosity given towards the female voice, than there has been ever. In the last decade, as well as the ’90s, there was always fervency and excitement to be found. The 1990s especially was a decade that- debatably, but to my mind definitely- produced the last great waves of dance and trance music. Within the shallow shores of trance and dance, diverse and unique vocalists such as Sophie Ellis Bextor and Sonique, sound-tracked some of the most memorable tracks of the decade. Established singers such as Elizabeth Fraser (from Cocteau Twins) were lending their hypnotic tones to incredible dance numbers (Fraser provided lead vocal on Massive Attack’s Teardrop). The dance and trance movement- that hit its peak at around 1998/’99 (and into 2000 too)- was only a small segment of the market. Away from such idiosyncratic music, there was a burgeoning and inspiring pop and folk scene; in fact there was a lot to get excited about. It was a decade that saw established legends producing great music alongside brilliant new artists, and to my mind it was the female acts whom were at the pinnacle. Whilst it was the bands whom were creating the best songs and anthems of the decade, it was the new female voices that caught my attention. As the years progressed, bands and the band market became more favoured- possibly in reaction to the greats of the ’90s such as Blur, Oasis and Pulp. Over the last few years there has perhaps been little to shout about, with regards to the solo market. There has been Laura Marling, Adele, Amy Winehouse and Lianna La Havas: varied and unique in their own way; each proffering a different sound and style. For all the modern-day icons and influences, there is precious little in the way of future potential- those artists whom you could see being around 10 years from now. Too often is the tendency for the new artist to underwhelm. Their words may be personal and concerning the usual themes: love-gone-wrong, determination; ambition and the realities of relationships; yet the sound and vocal tends to be less-than-impressive. When hitting upon a sound that is both memorable and unique, greater ambition has to be shown. Many of the female voices at the moment tend to be too sweet-natured: quite cutesy and pleasant, yet lacking in either bite or etherealness. Likewise the abiding sounds stray within the acoustic/folk/pop mould- little mobility is shown with regards to mixing genres and pushing boundaries. To my mind, the most impressive female talent tends to be those whom show consideration for every facet. Laura Marling- I have mentioned many times here- is the epitome of the modern-day female icon: stunning wordsmith; unique and powerful voice, and an electioneering and exciting sound. A great deal of R ‘n’ B and soul talents display a powerful set of pipes, and marry this to themes that are relevant as well as original. Outside of the obvious examples, the best female voices are hard to come across. I have reviewed several recently, including The State of Georgia and Sophia Bastian (and a few others). I feel that the market and public will always favour the bigger and more powerful voice: that which can elicit immense power and potency, whether it is through sheer force or raw emotion. When searching for inspiring female talent, the media perhaps is not overly helpful. Great websites such as The Girls Are promote female artists fervently, yet aside from that there is still a male-dominance apparent. Although, when one does discover a great voice and talent, it is a rewarding experience indeed.
Nancy Elizabeth has a stunning and knee-trembling soprano voice, that has won her many fans. It was My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden- a similarly crystalline vocal idol- whom was one of the last female singers to really invigorate my senses and get me excited. Nancy Elizabeth (or Nancy Elizabeth Cunliffe, to give her full name) has a voice that is as impressive, yet her sound palette and ambition is even higher and harder than the American’s. She is a multi-instrumentalist whom has been playing for many years now. Hailing from Wigan, she has been wowing crowds and capturing supporters since her first E.P., The Wheel Turning King was released (in 2006). Over the past five years, Nancy Elizabeth has been very busy indeed. Her first L.P., Battle and Victory was released in 2007, and was well received critically; drawing favourable comparisons with contemporaries such as Joanna Newsom. The follow-up L.P., Wrought Iron gained even more praise; many pointed towards the sparse sound, layered instrumentation and stunning vocals as hallmarks; promoting the likes of The Guardian to feature and profile our heroine: giving her invigoration and impetus to keep pushing and bringing her music as far and wide as possible. On her official website, Nancy Elizabeth states that she has been most of her 20s playing pretty much everywhere and anywhere; from a derelict Mexican church, through to a run-down pub in Paris- oh, and a gig at London’s Barbican Theatre. With great demand and a growing fan base, the pressures and relentlessness of performing became overwhelming, with our heroine retreating to the vicissitudes of home- where she remained ensconced and began work on her current L.P. Dancing. Having spent so many years recording and performing, it was only natural that rest bite and relaxation was in order. Nancy Elizabeth spent many sleepless nights listening to music; becoming fascinated by vocal harmonies- perhaps not relaxing then, but certainly inspiring. Within the walls of her cold and small Manchester flat (her words, not mine); surrounded by guitars, amps and instruments, the young artist become immersed in what was to become Dancing. The L.P.’s title was inspired by our heroine’s last-night tendencies: awake in the early hours she became acutely aware of time’s passing; a physicality was very present. Perhaps the album’s epiphany and inspiration came from Nancy Elizabeth’s own personality and desires. She is a young artist unconcerned with incongruous photos and imagery of herself. The designs and landscapes contained within the album’s artwork were created by her, and depict scenes and sights that sum up what the album is trying to say- the music is very much the primary concern. Likewise, whilst the L.P. does contain electronic samples and passages, it is not a traditional dance album; instead it enhances and utilises our heroine’s extraordinary voice, and combines with innovative and exciting compositions and sounds. Over the course of the 12 tracks that comprises Dancing, a lot of personal relevance, as well as mystery, are presenting in the song titles. Desire, Early Sleep and Shimming Song seem to project different sides to our heroine; whilst Mexico and Debt have very literal suggestions. I have been aware of the track Simon Says Dance for a little while, and know that it has gained some huge praise and plaudit from various sources. It is not a shock that Nancy Elizabeth has been earning impassioned words. From the hard days (and nights) spent in her flat: solitary and cold; small and familiar, a great deal of inspiration has been found. The L.P. shows a natural progression in terms of the overall sound, but the album sounds more personal and ambitious than her previous efforts. The album displays a lot of longing- mainly personal- and Simon Says Dance’s line about “a flame burns inside my belly” goes to show that there is a strengthened and steely resolve in our heroine’s heart. A great deal of the all-time legends produce some of their greatest work, in relation and as a reaction to separation and heartbreak. Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks and Joni Mitchell’s Blue display some of the greatest- as well as deeply personal and introspective- work of the lyrical legends; and unsurprisingly these albums are considered to be amongst their best work.
“Won’t wait in a cage/’Til someone comes to rescue me” is perhaps one of the most haunting and personal lyrics on the album, and are the first words of the L.P.’s lead-off track The Last Battle. The song itself begins with a gentle acoustic strum, alongside Nancy Elizabeth’s seductive wordless vocal. It has the evocations of a medieval battlefield or an Elizabethan feast. The atmosphere and stillness (the calm before the storm as it were) presents the former; whereas the latter seems appropriate when considering the tranquil sigh one hears. It is if our heroine is a queen, watching from afar; surveying a battlefield. Or she could well be the central focus: maybe a Joan of Arc representation? The sway and intoxication of the intro., with the exquisitely pure vocal and tender guitar, is a smoke that wafts and envelopes- and one which sets a peaceful and romantic tone. As the influence of a gorgeously-picked harp is played in; the vocals double and are triplicate: creating a small choir that augments the haunting and gentile aroma and mood-scape. Up until 45 seconds, one is subjected- or more accurately rewarded- to the sound of the ethereal chorusing; a mesmeric and tender armoury that makes you sigh and smile somewhat. It is pretty difficult for the casual listener; if they were to grasp for any potential ‘influences’- there is a little of Joanna Newsom’s magic to be detected. Such is the unique and idiosyncrasy of Nancy Elizabeth’s template, that you really can’t focus too hard on anyone else. Its harp and soprano coo subsides slightly, to make wave for an energised and upbeat acoustic/electric guitar combination. The tone has indie/pop edges- there is a The Bends Radiohead-cum-Oasis-cum-The Killers. In the same way that the operatic and soothing sway brought certain images to mind, it is the second half of the intro. which makes you think of something more modern- the inside of our heroine’s Manchester flat; as she sits alone and imagines. The vocal that arrives is more measured and composed than the wordlessness of the start: the tone and presentation has a measure of folk; yet Nancy Elizabeth’s voice is sweeter than your average example of the genre. Our heroine is in a cage; although she says “I’d stay there/But I can’t let myself be weak”; her voice seems determined and matter-of-fact: not overwhelmed or emotional. Where as the musical backing is enlivened and the vocal is pure and unflinching; the themes and words have a surreal and dream-like nature to them. Talk of the devil- female no less- are elicited; the succubus has “been pulling the wool over my eyes for all this time”. The words come, and the intention and message is plain to see. Where as lesser talent would stick with a single vocal line, and not deviate too far; Nancy Elizabeth weaves other vocal patterns in the mix; sprinkling a weaving and snaking coda in; one which rises and falls, creating a vocal sway that is extremely effective. Our heroine is “longing for someone to care for”: there is a sense of loneliness and emptiness that you can detect. Between the Siren vocals and dancing guitar there is a sense of romanticism, yet Nancy Elizabeth’s tones and words suggest a heart that is yet to find peace and satisfaction: there is the suggestion that too much pain has been experienced for too long. The words themselves are as impressive as anything- even if the voice is the most immediate facet- displaying a maturity and intelligence one hears from the likes of Laura Marling. Snatches such as: “love is letting you go love/Not tying you by my side” and “Hard to tell it from control/Because they look so alike”; shows an endeavouring originality and voice. There are no sloppy metaphors or over-used themes of love; no obvious and worn similes or histrionics: the lyrics are intriguing and vivid, making you imagine and project some rather strange and wonderful scenes. In every song I always wait for a moment that will take you totally by surprise; keep you on the edge of your seat, and quite frankly, knock you back. In the case of The Last Battle this occurs at the 2:50 mark. Having completed a sensual and imploring coda of “(I won’t be the devil’s whore) no more, no more”; our heroine’s voice sways and seduces, before a sea change occurs. Drums play powerful and rhythmically; portraying an army approaching. Nancy Elizabeth weaves her vocal lines into a tapestry: higher “ahhs” are mixed with lower “ohhs”- presenting a chilling and beautiful blend. Whereas the intro. had its instantaneous effect and potency, likewise the current passage has its striking charms. You are captured and pulled under by the gorgeous vocals; carried along by the pulsing and bouncing percussion. Just as you think we are going into battle; swords and horses; blood and pain, there is a calm unveiled. Our heroine returns to the theme of “Won’t wait in a cage/’Til someone comes to rescue me”; the voice still possessed of all of its magic and potency; swaying and playfully twisting and turning- and bringing the song to its conclusion.
I reviewed Joe McKee yesterday, an Australian solo artist whom has had an illustrious and successful past. From his roots as a frontman, he moved to London to change scenes (he was born in Brisbane); yet decided to return to the Darling Ranges of his native soil; captivated by its majesty and peace. He seems like an artist whom prefers tranquillity and does not favour too much bustle and hassle. His voice (on the track Darling Hills) presents a mesmeric and luscious baritone, that tempts and draws you in; making you acutely aware of your surroundings, as well as those which his song present. Coincidentally, Nancy Elizabeth has a similar predicament. From her time spent touring and being caught up in the day-to-day anxiety; she has retreated to a safer and more familiar haven, to produce something quite staggering. Even if there is little money and a less-than-idyllic backdrop to her predicament, it seems that the four walls she calls home inspire the greatest thoughts and movements. In the shadow and poison of insomnia, she was able to utilise the time; turning her thoughts to music, and creating an L.P. that is brimmed full of serenity, passion and intensity: a record that does not stand still and does what few others can claim to do. Nancy Elizabeth’s personality, predicaments, work ethic- and yes her voice- bring to mind the greats such as Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell and Patti Smith: she has drawn comparisons with Joni Mitchell fairly frequently. The legendary female stars of the ’70s and ’80s found that there seemed to be a causal link between a more secluded life, and musical alchemy. Where as the likes of Bush, Mitchell and Smith had their romances and highs; their greatest music was enforced by breakups, ghosts (metaphorical of course as ghosts don’t exist) and longing. In the case of Bush, surreal and dreamy scenes are worked into Nancy Elizabeth’s songs, and it is the ingredients and flavours that are put into the boiling pot, that makes her album such a success. The lyrics speak of love, love-gone-wrong, dreams, nightmares; mythical predicament, wars and battles and so much more. A multitude of instruments are worked into the palette to augment and invigorate tracks, giving them a huge ambition and unique sound. It is our heroine’s voice which is the calling card and golden nugget. It is an instrument that is pure and crystalline, yet has a power and passion that few can boast. The likes of The Girls Are have highlighted at just how majestic Dancing is, and The Last Battle is a perfect example of how good she is. Little consideration is usually paid to intros. yet here it is filled with so much promise, intrigue and potency, that the song instantly makes its mark. The themes of rising up; shaking off the shackles (cages, the devil in this case) and determination come to the fore: there is an abiding sense of wanting to break free and find space (with some longing and sensitivity present). It is a gorgeous song filled with striking and atmospheric instrumentation, and that stunning voice ruling the kingdom. It is a track that you can’t compare to anything else- or any other artist- yet has some lingering qualities of Newsom and Mitchell. As I write this (the morning of Sunday, 23rd June), the U.K. has witnesses the finale of another series of (the God-awful) The Voice. It was won by what’s-her-face? (she is blind I know). The show’s winner was a predictably lamentable and irrelevant sob story- it seems being blind is enough to get you votes in a singing contest. Such is the sappish and stupefying nature of these shows and its voters, that some woman’s predicament and disability superseded talent and potential. Apparently it should have been won by some other woman; to my mind sounds like a bag of cats being put through a ceiling fan. In fact she sounds like a bizarre Christina Aguilera/Leona Lewis/Minnie Ripperton hybrid, and is as deplorably irrelevant as the show’s winner. My point is that these shows (‘talent’ contests) foster this type of irrelevance. Even the artist whom apparently ‘should’ have won it, is nothing more than a copycat of other artists. Her voice is stolen (and hardly appealing or unique); I doubt she could write anything memorable or original if she tried, and she has a personality and projection that means she will be dead and buried in the water within a few months. The paradox is always the same: artist comes; writes album (with 15 producers and 25 writers); doesn’t play any instruments; has a boring L.P. cover; sounds exactly like existing artists; gets forgotten about all too soon. It is the stupidity and credulousness of the broadcasters, the public, as well as music fans that these shows are allowed to exist, survive and annoy. My point is that if you want to find someone genuinely worthy; a talent whom is doing things honestly and inspiring people- and is not a hideous fame-chasing cretin. Nancy Elizabeth is a hard-working, tireless and ambitious talent, whom is a hugely impressive writer and singer, and one whom is original and captivating. If you haven’t immersed yourself in the wonders of The Last Battle and Dancing…
DO so now… it’s one of the best albums you will hear this year.