I’m beginning to think there must be a factory somewhere churning out sensitive female folk singer/songwriters. Some wily entrepreneur must have spotted a gap in the market and stepped up production accordingly. Unfortunately, this means that for every Marissa Nadler, Mary Hampton or Josephine Foster that rolls off the production line, you will occasionally get a product of substandard quality – and that is what Nancy Wallace’s début album is, much as it pains me to say so.
Oddly enough, the name that kept occurring to me when listening to Old Stories was one that is never mentioned in avant circles, that of Radio 2-friendly singer and songwriter Dido. Now I will happily admit to a sneaking admiration for Dido’s homespun tales of love, friendship and loyalty, sung with a warmth and sensitivity that are all too rare in pop music. Nancy Wallace, on the other hand, seems to me to be striving for, but falling short of, the kind of closeness and simple intimacy that is so affecting in Dido’s work. Case in point, “The Way You Lie”, in which Wallace prosaically sings “You’ve sewn your heart into my sleeve, I’ll never be alone.” The acoustic guitar, violin and accordion accompaniment is pleasant enough, but one never feels drawn into or affected by the song. Wallace’s voice is simply too plain and unmemorable, and the emotions she conveys too unremarkable, to make any kind of lasting impression. “I’ve plenty here to put my mind to, while I’m waiting for your love”, she muses pallidly on “Waiting”; well, it doesn’t sound much like it.
Wallace’s major error, however, is to include three traditional ballads on the album alongside the six songs of her own. These three tracks fatally expose the weaknesses in her own songwriting, even as they tell a different story of her talents as a singer. The press release for this album blithely states that “[the] traditional songs sit happily alongside Nancy’s original compositions with a flow so effortless you forget which is which.” This claim is so craven and misleading, even by the normal standards of press releases, that one almost overlooks the fact that Wallace’s readings of “I Live Not Where I Love”, “The True Lover’s Farewell” and “The Drowned Lover” are steeped in the kind of blood and longing that the likes of Shirley Collins and Sandy Denny staked out and made their own in the 60s and 70s. Wallace’s voice on these songs hits a perfect note of tragic stillness and inevitability (“this grave that I lie in is my new married bed”, as she darkly intones on “The Drowned Lover”), while the acoustic arrangements revel in their starkness and simplicity.
If Nancy Wallace had made a whole album of traditional songs, I would probably at this point be hailing her as a new heroine of English folk music. As it is, I’m left frustrated by the redundancy of most of this record. I only wish Wallace hadn’t so seriously diluted the impact of her undoubted interpretative gifts by setting her own, sadly inferior musings alongside those desolate old stories from the past.
(Originally published in The Sound Projector 18, 2009)