Chances are if the weird naked-girl-with-animal-head sleeve doesn’t grab you then the anticipation would have already have got you: Beth Jeans Houghton is one of those artists, a bit like labelmate Josh T. Pearson, whose first LP was greeted with angsty expectation by the music press, that expectation cultivated over an extended period; in this case, that period is almost four years from when Houghton’s first music appeared in 2008.
It also helped that Mute kept the album under wraps far longer than reviewers would ordinarily tolerate; if this was a Hollywood movie, the critics would have already drawn the unassailable conclusion that the movie was a stinker, otherwise the studio would have readily let the journos in to watch. For some reason, not making this available to the press much earlier than its actual release seems to have just heightened the hype surrounding Houghton’s first album.
Produced by Ben Hillier, the inexplicably-named Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose finds Houghton, a talented lyricist and multi-instrumentalist judging by the sleeve, and her Hooves Of Destiny (Findlay MacAskill on violin, Dav Shiel on drums, Rory Gibson on bass, and Edward Blazey on trumpet and guitar) cutting a distinctive path through modern music’s more folksy places.
Houghton’s style appears to draw upon the weird mysticism of British folk groups from yesteryear blended with the downright unhinged kookiness of the likes of Tori Amos. A quick run through the lyric sheet provides few clues to what these songs are all about, almost as if Houghton was writing down particularly vivid and strange dreams, lots of strange imagery and oblique references. My favourite lines come during the spoken-word section of ‘Nightswimmer’, an early version of which first appeared on Houghton’s ‘Golden’ single in 2009, whereupon she mouths ‘And the cracks in the pavement sweat like the crust / Of a toffee pecan pie‘.
Hillier certainly wrings out an organic quality from the ten songs here, Houghton and The Hooves (and occasionally Hillier himself) laying down a multitude of instruments, giving the tracks a casual feel, almost as if everyone was content to grab whatever instruments were hanging about the studio and muck around while Hillier expertly captured the whole affair. A sense of warmth and often dark beauty seeps from every track, augmented on most tracks by a string quartet formed of Ian Budge on cello, Everton Nelson and Sally Herbert on violins and Bruce White on viola.
I said in the single review of ‘Liliputt’ (which I’m no closer to fathoming after reading the lyrics) that the song reminded me on some level of Dexy’s or their modern counterparts The Rumble Strips, and that same sense of joyful abandon colours all but the quietest tracks on Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose. I asked my music-loving, ukulele-playing daughter (then just five years old) what she thought; after the inevitable request to add the songs to her iPod, she described the songs as ‘jumpy’. I suspect if she knew what ‘jaunty’ meant, she’d probably have employed that adjective instead.
The track that was playing when I asked my eldest daughter for review input was ‘Atlas’, which is one of the strongest songs on the album, featuring pounded layers of intense drums, skinny funk guitar culled from Vampire Weekend or their antecedents Talking Heads. ‘Dissecting the atlas for places we’ve been / Your list is longer but you’ve got more years on me,‘ is one of the most evocative lines here, coincidentally echoing a conversation around our household dinner table a weekend or so before the album was released. Houghton’s voice here effortlessly shifts between the hyper-falsetto and warm, sweet tones that pervade many of the tracks here, while a spoken word section by Neesha Champaneria provides a dark counterpoint to the more joyously carefree sound elsewhere on the song.
Another big highlight is ‘Humble Digs’ with its rolling drums and plucked countrified ukulele, expressive strings and a chorus of Houghton and The Hooves that sounds like a miners’ choir or Annie Get Your Gun chorus line; ‘Humble Digs’ is upbeat and infectious. A couple of listens and it’ll feel like an old friend.
A sense of wry breeziness dominates tracks like ‘Franklin Benedict’ wherein Houghton offers up lines that evoke summery warmth (‘Roasting peppers in the back yard,‘) and the downright creepy (something about a unitard, singly the most unpleasant thing ever invented). This is in direct contrast to the album’s official closing track, ‘Carousel’, which is a short track with a weird, harpsichord and piano rhythm. There’s also gorgeous strings, scary cackling, crackling noises and bells. It should feel upbeat but feels unsettling on some level, as if it masks something dark and unpleasant; like a track from Poses by Rufus Wainwright. It also sounds like something from a fairground, and that’s always guaranteed to creep me out.
The new version of ‘Nightswimmer’ retains that track’s producer Adem’s spiralling synth curlicues, but Hillier polishes the track with a new depth compared to that tentative original, the enquiring bass in particular gaining a blissful prominence. While on face value it sounds as ethereal as anything else here, Houghton’s detached lyrics seem to indicate a metaphorical drowning. Of this track I have said previously that it reminds me of both Depeche Mode‘s ‘One Caress’ and ‘Trilby’s Couch’ from AC Marias‘s solitary Mute album, One Of Our Girls Has Gone Missing, sharing a similar sense of dark Twin Peaks-style mysteriousness.
A sense of mysteriousness also dominates ‘The Barely Skinny Bone Tree’, which sounds vaguely like a traditional Russian or Greek dance song, all plucked violin and the sense that at any second it could accelerate into a manic and out-of-control fervency, only offset by Houghton’s floating, dark vocal. The chorus sees the plucking replaced by mournful strings and a sense of weariness and strained sadness. ‘The Barely Skinny Bone Tree’ has a deeply affecting quality, though it’s queasily unsettling at the same time.
As if to confound further still, once ‘Carousel’ winds down, an uncredited song suddenly snarls into view. This bonus track (I’ve been advised that it’s called ‘Prick AKA Sean’) sounds like Green Day’s take on grimy punk rock, Houghton’s voice barely audible underneath the Hooves’ ramshackle harmonies. Against all the odds, this song is angry, joyous, a little bit glam-rock and evidently a whole lot of fun after the more studied pieces elsewhere. It provides a fittingly baffling conclusion to a brave, adventurous and above all, well-realised debut album, and one that was truly worth waiting for.
First posted 2012; edited and re-posted 2019. This archive review was brought to you by the letter H, as chosen by Jorge Punaro.
(c) 2019 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence