Flood (Secretly Canadian)
ONE OF THE MOST ENJOYABLE aspects of a most enjoyable debut Stella Donnelly released in 2019 – Beware Of Dogs, I liked it – was the way lyrical hard body checks (of the sort that left bruises or emotional concussions, and might earn a few weeks off the paddock if the football judiciary saw it) just kept coming in affectless, almost sweet tones.
That’s not just a reference to her voice but to her facility for melodies and arrangements which could be similarly light-as-air, their impact arriving without warning, but the bite – the righteous, pointed anger; the happily frank honesty – was palpable.
On this, her second album, there is a subtle deviation which suggests a re-evaluation of people around her, herself, and the judgements we all make, couched in songs that feel a bit more fleshed out, structurally more than sonically. Think of it as less and more. And it’s still good.
The flugelhorn shaping gracefully and the rudimentary yet perfectly judged piano in Restricted Account are paired with lines that imply a level of weariness with conflict that still isn’t going to settle for resignation but hasn’t given up on change and satisfaction. It is a love song almost in spite of itself, about a love that is clinging on almost in spite of itself.
Even more gently but even more painfully, Underwater finds her at the piano again – this time with little more than a resonating note in the distance, midway through the song, as a companion – carefully taking an antagonist through the reasons why the years have not rubbed away the harm done in adolescence even as understanding of sorts has come. Yet it is always clear why this isn’t either a song of forgiveness or forgetting.
The third in this mini bracket on the record is Medals, where guitar and synth both begin to glisten, the Carpenters-like golden hum backing vocals almost naturally lead into a Smooth FM saxophone, and her voice is pillow soft. Yet the situation explored, the ever so flawed person described, slowly darkens even as there is something almost like sympathy in the clear-eyed (which you might also call coolly brutal) assessment.
Either side of these three songs, Donnelly tucks in with some relish into a brisker, pop that might be mistaken for a direct contrast at least until you look closely.
How Was Your Day? springs up with a take on the classic striped sunlight Brisbane sound (winding footpath guitars, drums on skip-and-turn, brisk walking bass, and droll verses flashing brightly into a simple but simply hookable chorus); Lungs pushes through a hi-fi version of lo-fi mid ‘90s indie pop (piano challenging the angular guitar for lead but otherwise that insistent propulsion, almost humming vocals, and snare-and-hi-hat beat); and Move Me eases out of Medals with an eye to progress rather than staying in (the flugelhorn pointing forward rather than holding you in close, guitar settling somewhere between the ocean and the plains, the shuffle drums heading forwards).
Yet each of them walks a line between a taste of bitterness and a tone of mourning what should be: whether it’s Lungs’ disgust at a predatory landlord, a public shaming and a concurrent nascent self-pride, the here’s why everything went wrong acceptance of How Was Your Day?; or the conundrum of self-recrimination and self-realisation in Move Me.
In slightly different ways, the rest of the album echoes the patterns of these earlier songs, whether it is finding delicate sadness teetering on crushing in Oh My My My, letting clumsiness find its feet in the northern England jangle of Cold, or the ambiguous circumstances of Morning Silence which land us somewhere between The Unthanks and The Roches.
Flood is an album that makes no big statements vocally or lyrically, but everything finds its way home, and while it may not be as noticeable a bruise, that leaves just as much of a reminder.
SPOTIFY: Listen to Stella Donnelly - Flood
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Review by Bernard Zuel
Republished with permission. Read more reviews and articles from BZ - https://www.bernardzuel.net/