Album Review: Rachel Sermanni - Under Mountains (Townsend Music)
One of the privileges of being even remotely involved with grassroots music is watching an artist grow and develop. Over time, songs form and reform, access to more instruments and recording techniques sees arrangements deepen and sounds develop. It's sometimes interesting to look back to where you first heard an artist and to take stock of the journey – and the impending release of Rachel Sermanni's debut album "Under Mountains" seems a good place to do just that. In this case, I hold a special place for those early demos - the simplicity of the guitar accompaniments, along with the surprise of hearing quite such a remarkable vocal range somehow marked Rachel's performances as something otherworldy. It was one of those moments you just wanted to share with others in the hope they'd get the same spine-tingle. In short – one of the reasons I probably decided to scribble about music in the first place. So here, with a crop of well road-tested songs and a crew of respected additional musicians and their instruments at her disposal, would that immediate jaw-dropping gasp at that remarkable voice remain?
The first surprise - and perhaps mild disappointment - about the album is how much previously released material is included. I can see why – those early, limited release EPs probably didn't trouble the radar of the album-buying mainstream at all. Certainly quality is not an issue and there are damn good reasons for this material to be here. For instance "Breathe Easy" from the Black Currents EP is I'm sure deliberately chosen as the lead track to make sure that sense of something special at work hits home early in proceedings. Gentle, quiet, moderately paced musical backing provides a sympathetic structure for Rachel's voice to climb and leap around. Her utterly remarkable voice - ranging here from an earthy sensual moan to a joyous high keen - means she never needs to indulge in the dreadfully over-sung modulated silliness which plagues female vocalists these days. "Waltz" is structured almost as formally as the dance it describes, a simple tune mostly provided by Sermanni's guitar with a little discreet male backing on the country-tinged chorus. This is a fair distance away from the version which appeared on 'The Bothy Sessions', which is much more spontaneous and ungoverned. While the song remains as strong as ever, I miss the shimmers of unexpected, exotic instruments and organic recording techniques. But like many of the already well-known songs here such as "Black Currents" and the mighty "Song To A Fox", this is here because it merits being heard by a much wider audience than have had the chance so far.
It's tempting to imagine the strange collision between Hansel and Gretel, Alice in Wonderland and those hazily risqué Galaxy adverts on hearing "Ever Since the Chocolate". It's a pensive, dramatic wheel of strings, with a dark fantasy at the heart of its lyric which touches on insanity and confusion. There are odd, almost psychedelic visions here which showcase Sermanni's ability to strike a sometimes whimsical note in her lyrics, but to then pin these fantasies and constructions to universal emotional truths. Whilst in other hands this approach often misses something in the translation, here it's breathtaking - and what begins as a brow-furrowing 'where on earth is she going with this?' moment soon gets caught up in the sheer delight Sermanni displays in putting together words and verses, to a point that her sometimes surprisingly unsettling stories become captivating. A personal highlight remains "The Fog", which stutters and shudders along full of drama and uncertainty. Rachel's voice is given the freedom here to explore its full range, and the desperate howl she reaches on the chorus is spine tingling and glass shatteringly brilliant. The instrumentation here is sparser, the arrangement edgier and the strings which elsewhere sometimes strike a rather sugar sweet, slick note add genuine drama and tension. The deeper darker tones hidden in the surprising scope of that voice are explored in "Sea Oh See" where a truly strange story of being washed down a plug hole and out to sea ends up exploring odd piratical territory. This genuinely strange song uses the much broader musical accompaniment available to excellent cinematic effect, being packed with bursts of strings and percussion which echo the swelling seas, before finding passages of calm in Rachel's soothing vocals.
On the face of it "Marshmallow Unicorn" sounds likely to provide more whimsy and fantasy in its storyline, but it is in fact one if the albums most affecting and personal moments. Loss, death and fragile memory are explored with sensitivity and a painful realism through lines such as 'you'll let go this cold hand in time' and 'you will lose my face'. Sung from the viewpoint of the departing, the lyric hints at the subtle signs of unseen presence, and makes a pledge never to be wholly absent. The story at the heart of this song can surely only come from genuine experience, as its tugs on the heartstrings are just too accurate to be pure luck. The final triumph of this song is its simplicity. Just a voice and a guitar - no tricks or over-worked arrangements, and not far from those early demo recordings I started out enthusing over. Speaking of which, close to the end of the album "Eggshells" arrives. This has long been a personal favourite of mine with its gentle beginning which builds into a leaping, aching chorus and peaceful, calming end section. Hearing this in its earliest form, growing and changing through live performances and finally being committed to record here as a shimmering, gentle ballad which evokes the gentle authority and authenticity of Nanci Griffith, provokes a mix of responses. Is it still that raw, wide-eyed and edgy performance which started the journey? Probably not in many ways – but it loses little of its impact in the process, gains a world-weary wistfulness and ultimately remains an album highlight.
This is a curious and lovely record which is either going to achieve some sort of multi-genre Mercury friendly crossover very swiftly, or which could fall uncomfortably - and very unfairly - between stools. Sermanni writes rather brilliant pop songs, performs them with a folk singer's voice and intensity, and fills in the background with a crafted, pleasantly bittersweet country music which could dominate the Radio 2 playlist overnight. She achieves all of this while retaining a foothold in the grassroots of the Scottish alternative scene - appearing equally comfortable standing alone in Erskine Hall at a Homegame, wringing her hands and gazing skyward in an effort to explain her motivations and inspirations to a rapt crowd as she does at a seriously musicianly Celtic Connections event. There is no doubting the remarkable talent here, or the potential "Under Mountains" has to make Rachel Sermanni a household name. Don't be surprised if at some point in the next few weeks you catch someone murmuring these songs to themselves. Just hope they don't try for the high notes...
"Under Mountains" is released by Townshend Music on 17th September, and is available through all the usual digital outlets as well as a signed, limited edition from Rachel's website. An extensive UK wide tour begins tonight in Middlesbrough, moving into mainland Europe in late October.