Graham Reid | | 3 min read
Despite Covid-19 roadblocks – and it being the year of Benee and the Beths – for many 2020 belonged to Reb Fountain.
She was nominated for three music awards (best album, solo artist and alternative artist) and her album, being self-titled, seemed to announce Fountain's emergence as a different kind of artist, and one signed to Flying Nun.
With critically acclaimed previous albums in the broad folk genre, Fountain steadily moved toward nerve-end, intellectual alt.rock via the Hopeful/Hopeless EP and Little Arrows album, both 2017.
Exploring poetic threads from Patti Smith, Leonard Cohen and dark cabaret, her writing deepened, becoming more oblique but innately powerful.
The album's opening line on her 2020 album which won this year's Taite Music Award – “changes, I've made some changes” -- was evident in performance.
Freed of the magnetic field around the microphone stand which grips so many, and often abandoning the protective shield of an instrument, she commanded stages, prowling through the space, occupying the lip in the manner of Nick Cave and, with dramatic gestures, engaged like a performance artist throwing herself into extended treatments of her Silver Scroll-shortlisted Don't You Know Who I Am.
When she performed Hey Mom at Auckland's recent Flying Nun 40thanniversary a woman nearby was overtaken by body-shaking sobs.
All of which makes her new Iris one of the year's most anticipated albums from an artist whose lyrics, in the manner of Bob Dylan, may be abstruse on close reading but which add up to something inexplicably coherent.
In that, Iris is a consolidation, yet deeper metaphysical exploration, of territory Fountain has defined for herself.
The opener Psyche begins with funereal piano and mournful cello before her speak-sing poetry unfurls through evocative mythological and feminine imagery.
Here too are understated and beautiful melodies (the elegant Foxbright with its anima spirit image), dreamy chamber-like folk-pop (the dark eddies of Peggy Seeger and Calum MacColl's Swim to the Star about the sinking of the Titanic), and vocal shifts from a conversational whisper alternating with a confident woman on the increasingly dramatic folk-pop of Invisible Man, a song freighted with yearning and need.
Fountain deploys her signature move between intimate, rhythmic spoken word passages and song, coupled – on the veiled menace and consciousness questioning of Beastie – with a changing perspective between the personal and observational.
Frequently there is breathy sensuality: “We open and close like a perfect ring/throw your head back . . . Your arrow was loose in my heart,” on the ballad Heart. And again on the relentlessly driving pop-rock of Lacuna: “What a way to start, kisses in the dark/You know I can't be whole with the sum of us apart”.
In such songs, Fountain probes beneath surfaces through heightened, analytical dissections of emotions but which remain engaging for their honest expression.
With her cracking band of Karin Canzek (bass), Earl Robertson (drums) and multi-instrumentalist Dave Khan, Iris also offers considerable musical range, from the reflective title track to the searing, unnerving central passage of the Fisherman-- its lyric moving between stark realism and the Biblical – which ends in an oppressive soundscape as she cries, “hold back the tide, hold back the tide”.
Iris, full of such layered and passionately resonant songs, will surely provide even more anchoring material for Reb Fountain's compelling performances now touring is an option again.
Reb Fountain's Iris is available now on digital platforms and on vinyl through Flying Out.
Iris tour dates
Isaac Theatre, Christchurch, November 25; Glenroy Auditorium, Dunedin, November 27; Opera House, Wellington, December 3; The Civic, Auckland, December 11