Goodnight City marks Martha's return to the recording studio in her own (solo) right (it's four years since Come Home To Mama), since aside from last year's Wainwright Sisters album Songs In The Dark (with half-sister Lucy Wainwright Roche) she's been of necessity rather preoccupied with motherhood. Francis, her second son, was born in 2014, and Goodnight City contains two songs of which he's the subject; Franci is a predictably affectionate yet sensibly cautionary (also slightly affected) self-penned address to the child, which takes on a darker tone with its family-history, whereas Francis is a classic-romantic-movie-style piano ballad by Martha's brother Rufus. In between these tracks the album takes some challenging twists and turns, with some tracks closer to pop mainstream or even cabaret and others quite experimental in nature. Martha's vocal skills are sure put to the test on this disc too, especially on the disturbing, off-kilter opening track Around The Bend, which depicts, to an almost casual and calm shuffle beat, the mental collapse of someone who may or may not be an addict in recovery; it's an extraordinary performance, the first of several notable ones on the album, and reminds me that Martha's singing is always adventurous and can never be described as conventional.
On Before The Children Came Along, raising kids, and the effect of this process on marital harmony, is explored with all the realism of becoming unhinged by the experience, while Window seems more to take a child's-eye view of the world. Martha's skill in adopting different vocal personas comes into its own on this album, and the experience of her 2009 "Piaf album" (Sans Fusils, Ni Souliers, À Paris) seems to have informed her development and vocal maturity, especially on numbers like the heady, gloomy, pulsating Beth Orton composition Alexandria. Sometimes too, the swooping, soaring cadences of Kate Bush come to mind, while Martha's declamation of the driving, heavily electrified So Down recalls both Siouxsie and Poly Styrene. Then by contrast there's the delicate, whispering dark sparse confidential of Piano Music (keyboardist/co-producer Thomas Bartlett's chamber-style setting of a Michael Ondaatje poem).
Traveller is a poignant expression of personal loss and how it can be dealt with by those left behind, its impact enhanced by a swirling chorale of backing voices. Look Into My Eyes is a curious, wispy, ethereal song with passages sung in French, co-written by Martha with family members Anna, Lily and Rufus, while One Of Us is a tender piano-and-cello-backed number co-written with Glen Hansard. Tuneyards' Merrill Garbus is responsible for penultimate track Take The Reins, another excursion into scratchy-beats-and-synths territory where Martha's voice sounds restless and edgy.
Given the disparate writing styles in evidence on the songs included on Goodnight City, it's something of a miracle that Martha has managed to unify it all - and certainly the strongly individual identity and binding power of her voice is a major contributory factor in this achievement, as no doubt is the guiding hand of husband and co-producer Brad Albetta. This is not an easy album to come to terms with, at least on initial acquaintance, but it's worth persevering.
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