I’m showing my age. Go back 35 years and we all in thrall to the 4AD aesthetic. The ethereal slightly gothic home to the Cocteau Twins, This Mortal Coil and Pixies, the label had a distinct look, sound and feel. Managed by Ivo Watts-Russell and with sleeves designed by Vaughn Oliver, you know where you stood – in a forest, with slightly gauzy fabric with fireflies buzzing around. That’s where you stood, on a cold wintery night.
4AD is still going but their roster is a broader church from the rhythmic pop of Tune-Yards to epic angst-ridden National, the label is more diverse. That’s not entirely true though, because there was always a home for the electronic dance of Colourbox and MARRS. Your memory can play tricks on you after all of this time.
Ex:Re fits in then and she fits in now. North Londoner Elena Tonra formed Daughter in 2010. Three albums into their career, Ex:Re (pronounced ex-ray) is effectively a solo album for Tonra, albeit one with a supporting cast of Fabian Prynn and Josephine Stephenson.
Tonra’s guitar pattern and Stephenson’s cello invites us into the spare Young Marble Giants soundscapes of opening track Where The Time Went. It is typically intimate and confessional, qualities that it shares with one of my favourite Rough Trade albums of last year’s, Adrienne Lenker’s Abysskiss. New York is in a similar sonic territory, with Tonra staggering drunkenly staggering around the Big Apple, wondering where her life was heading.
At this point, you might wonder whether this is all too much like hard work from a listener’s perspective, intruding on the embers of a relationship is never the cheeriest ways of spending forty minutes.
And then Romance comes along, the electric pulse providing a sense of velocity, the likes of which you would have found on Lorde’s Melodrama or Sharon Van Etten’s recent Seventeen single. You think this is it, the banger that gets us on the dance floor. It is until you listen closer, the tale of a violent relationship:
Romance is dead and done
And it hits between the eyes on this side
The grass is dead and barren
And it hurts between my thighs on this side
It is the textures of the album that make it enjoyable, stopping the lyrical content weighing it down. The old 4AD Throwing Muses guitar rhythms of Crushing and the fuzzed up bass synth of Too Sad pull things along.
The centrepiece is The Dazzler, which builds, embracing both the musical variety of the arrangements, the lyrical introspection but this time with an added dose of humour. We’re back with Tonra in a hotel room and she is musing on hotel sex and the anonymity of one’s existence when you pay by the night for your accommodation. We get the pay-off line, delivered with Sinatra-inspired phrasing:
Leave the lights on, I’m not paying those (a long pregnant pause)…..bills
Tonra’s rich characterful voice shines through, her vulnerability to the fore, the cello line wrapping its way around the melody. Theremin-like synth bloops punctuate the slow drag and a piano motif ups the drama. It is beautifully constructed, capable of sitting on Massive Attack’s Protection alongside Tracey’s lovelorn Better Things.
After a month listening to the album through some very trying personal circumstances, I have been coming back to it. It doesn’t resonate with me in the same majestic way that the Delines’ Imperial still does but it is sharing its delights slowly.
The best albums are often like that.