It’s not all acoustic female singer-songwriters from me in this issue of The Sound Projector (see reviews of Josephine Foster and Nancy Wallace elsewhere in these pages). The boys are here as well, on a mission to prove that they can be just as sensitive and emotionally aware as their female counterparts. I have no idea if there are such things as distinctively male and female approaches to songcraft, but both the Benjamin Wetherill and Hollowbody albums give strong indications of the rewards and pitfalls of this kind of music.
Benjamin Wetherill’s Laura is by some margin the more enjoyable and accomplished of the two. Recorded in Hungary with a seven-piece band, the album is a set of lush and romantic variations on European folk, topped off by Wetherill’s distinctively lilting voice. That voice has something of Antony Hegarty’s reedy, warbling quality, although it grates on me far less than Antony’s does these days. It’s also a rather refined, not to say aristocratic voice, giving the impression of Wetherill being a fey and tortured aesthete – an impression given ample reinforcement by the songs, which revel in their rapturous imagery and fevered poetic imaginings.
The album is, in fact, more or less a collaboration between Wetherill and Jeremy Barnes, mainstay of American instrumental folk group A Hawk and a Hacksaw. Barnes produced it, played on it and brought along not only his AHAAH partner Heather Trost on violin but also the Hun Hangar Ensemble, a group of Hungarian musicians with whom AHAAH have worked in the past. The songs, though, are Wetherill’s own, with the exception of the traditional ballad “Shallow Brown”. Flowing beautifully from one to the next, they lend the record as a whole a fine singularity and sense of purpose from the opening “For All The Headlines” onwards. Wetherill’s bright and confident acoustic guitar picking style, together with his cultivated vocal tones, puts me in mind of Nick Drake; the varied instrumentation, however, makes the overall atmosphere much less oppressive than that found in Drake’s work. “Ada”, for example, features cimbalom (a Hungarian version of the hammer dulcimer), flute and clarinet, while on the sprawling epic “Kissing Under Poplars” Wetherill’s guitar and voice drop out halfway through in favour of a distant and eerie interlude for trumpet and accordion.
“How useless my songs are, for what use are words now you’re gone”, mourns Wetherill on “How Lonely The Moon”, in an unconscious echo of Peter Hammill’s “What’s the good of songs anyway, they’re just exercises in solitude”. Wetherill has none of Hammill’s majestic gravitas, but he does share something of the Van der Graaf Generator man’s precise and very English style of diction. And on the closing “Oh Sorrow”, the song’s Baroque sense of tragedy is given flight by a swirling and tempestuous coda for the entire ensemble.
Turning from Laura to Inside the Wolves, unfortunately, is rather like stepping out of a Michelin-starred restaurant into a greasy spoon café. This slight, bedroom-recorded eight-tracker is the début album of Bristol’s Dan Weltman, who is clearly no slouch on acoustic guitar either – his playing style is just as fluid and expressive as Wetherill’s – but who lets his side down with watery vocals and trite lyrics. Coming over like a low-rent cross between Ray Davies and Robert Wyatt, Weltman chews and croons his way through aperçus like “Once I was a writer, I wasn’t very good/My stories were all stolen, should have burned them when I could” (“Chains”). “Juliet I’m Running”, meanwhile, is a messy and overcooked thing with its banjo, harmonica and electric guitar – a bit easygoing, a bit rambling, like Martin Stephenson without the infectious charm.
Invidious though it may be to take chunks of Weltman’s lyrics out of context and hold them up to scrutiny, he does rather ask for it. Take these lines, from “Joanne”: “I think sometimes of the way you wore dresses, so short they left no room for guesses what colour your underwear was”. Coming in the middle of a song that assumes an elegaic air of lost love, guilt and regret, I’m at a loss; is this kind of thing meant to be fond, affectionate or even gently ribbing? Because it’s nothing of the sort, it’s just creepy. And ultimately it’s this perfunctory, unconcerned approach to songwriting that leaves Hollowbody sounding distinctly, well, hollow.
(Originally published in The Sound Projector 18, 2009)