Vyvienne Long has been known for sometime as a boundlessly talented cellist and arranger, making her name with Damien Rice and cementing that reputation on Lisa Hannigan’s beautifully orchestrated Sea Sew. Long also shares many of the quirks and idiosyncracies that make Ms. Hannigan so endearing. Here, on her debut full length, she displays all her talent, confidence and humour to fabulous effect.
As you would expect from such an experienced player, this is a gorgeous album brimming with inventive strings, jazzy piano, walking upright bass and some horns, all held together by Long’s voice, delicate, menacing or sorrowful by turn. The orchestration really is top class Owen Pallet territory in terms of inventiveness and originality though thankfully without the pretention. While strings are often not much more than a tacked on affection for a singer-songwriter, here they are the album’s body and soul. Adding texture and a good deal of the emotion, they underscore each different mood with unwearying expressiveness. The album however doesn’t start with the strings at its centre, beginning rather with the piano and voice led ‘Late, Always’. The song is a perfect display of Long’s abilities as a vocalist, holding heartbroken notes before the appearance of a mournful horn which pushes the piece into Morricone territory, fast piano arpeggios underpinning the sadness of it all.
The mood doesn’t lift too quickly though, as the strings make their presence felt on ‘They’re Not Waving’. Beginning with a melodramatic slowness, they cut to a intense pulse backed by the most menacing egg shaker ever recorded. This sense of danger is undermined by the romantic naivety of the lyrics with the song’s innocent chorus urging the strings to burst into poppy sunshine. They just about resist this tempatation which gives the song a distinct sense of unease. ‘Treacherous’ is another uncomfortable piano piece with confessional lyrics and distant rumbling drums. Long’s strength as a lyricist is obvious through out, admitting as much to herself as to he who has betrayed her, unable wholly to forgive or condemn, all the while knowing that ‘nothings so good as when it’s bad’. The treachery is all the harder to bear alongside the lingering love. There is no easy resolution to be found, no easy way out.
‘Test of Endurance’ carries this melancholy on for another few minutes, showcasing her more romantic classical influences with a swelling string section right in the middle before Long shakes herself and we’re introduced to the downright jazzy ‘Tactless Questions’, kickstarting the much more upbeat middle section of the album. Staccato strings, motown horns, casual drums, its all there, supporting the humour-tinged lyrics. The song gives way to the best bassline to come out of Ireland in a long time, the kind of bass that Radiohead have been known to employ on their more jazzy efforts. ‘Freakscene’ is the energetic highpoint of the album, cosmopolitan and casual in its self-assuredness, it sounds like the best night out you’ve ever had. Its as close to effortlessly cool Long gets. ‘Bad Move’ and ‘Hideaway’ continue this faster and more upbeat idea, never quite all out happiness, but instilled with an energy that carries them all by itself. The comedown begins however towards the end of ‘Hideaway’ and carries on through the last portion of the album, returning to the slower, melancholic piano sound that began the record.
Long leaves her most well known song until last, ‘Happy Thoughts’ (from that TV ad). Shortening the song for broadcast robs it of its stunning ending though, as the drums come in and its pop sensibility and grand arrangement lead it to a ‘Hey Jude’ style sing-along finish. It is the albums more thoroughly happy moment, the one time it shakes all shackles and abounds in its own joyousness, and its a wonderful way to round out a fantastic album, one that will grow with each listen. There’s a secret track in there too, so hang around. We won’t ruin the surprise. It’s a good one though.