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Album review: Polly Paulusma “The Small Feat of My Reverie” (FRUK)

July 28, 2014

Cover of Polly Paulusma's 'The Small Feat of My Reverie'The accompanying PR notes position Polly Paulusma’s new record The Small Feat of My Reverie as the ‘sister album’ to 2012’s Leaves From The Family Tree, although as it contains “early shed demos of all the songs including choral workings and early string arrangements” along with a handful of previously unreleased songs, thinking of it as the ‘precursor to’ Leaves From The Family Tree might be more helpful to anyone trying to understand its context. Nevertheless, setting aside my pedanticism, it’s fascinating to witness the origins of the material which finally emerged on Leaves From The Family Tree; even more so when one plays the different versions back-to-back.

Three things are immediately apparent from such a comparison. The first is the realisation that a huge amount of work must have gone into the demos, which are highly detailed and more like the audio equivalent of a sculptor’s bronze study models than a hasty charcoal ‘back of an envelope’ sketch. The second difference isn’t so much to do with the arrangements and song structures as it is to do with the overall ‘feel’ of the two albums. There is a slightly looser ambience about The Small Feat of My Reverie, a more bucolic pastoralism which situates it somewhere between Vashti Bunyan and some of the late, great Ronnie Lane’s work with Slim Chance. In contrast, the recordings on Leaves From The Family Tree sound much tighter and somehow sparser.

Finally, there’s the difference in production values: personally, I prefer the sound of the demo versions. Polly’s voice benefits from their more upfront, almost close-mic’d sound. To stretch my art-related metaphors to breaking point, on the demos it’s like being able to see the brushstrokes in all their fine detail, whereas the ‘finished’ versions are more akin to watercolours. This is not to say that one is ‘better’ than the other, it’s more like comparing John Constable to JMW Turner; today I might prefer to see The Hay Wain, tomorrow The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons might have more appeal.

At the time of writing, I’m most taken with the demos of The Story of my Life (for Polly’s heart-on-your-sleeve vocals and the distant mandolin, way back in the mix); the sticky-clicky electric piano on the almost stream-of-consciousness Hallelujah and Don’t Ask Me and Lynch Pin which, shorn of their ‘finished version’ strings, allow their divinely, finely-balanced harmonies to shine. The real highlight has to be the immense Take Me Home with its cathedral-sized reverbed choir which would have Brian Wilson and Phil Spector running for cover, their metaphorical tails tucked between their legs. Having said that, I also think that, today at least, I prefer the finished versions of Last Week Me (for the ebb and flow of its skipping rhythms and exuberantly rootsy fiddle); Most Of It (for its honey-sweet harmonies and unruly bottleneck guitar) and Two Houses, for its sinewy double bass.

In all the back-and-forth between the different versions, it would be easy to overlook the five other, previously unreleased songs (which, I think, are also demos) included on The Small Feat of My Reverie but they, too, deserve our attention. The impatiently anticipatory Fairylights is embellished with some gorgeous harmonies over its simple strummed acoustic guitar; while the brushed drums and handclaps of Rainbow Eye drive it steadily onwards over a tireless double bass. Call of the Wild foregrounds mandolin and Hammond organ in a swirling 6/8 tale of wanderlust in a song which has the definite potential to become a national drivetime favourite. Seize The Day introduces some gentle hand percussion behind a multitracked choir of Pollys, while State of Mind is a gentle, fingerpicked reflection on the passing of time over a thoughtful chord progression which sounds like it could only be improved by the introduction of a solo cello.

In the final analysis, it’s down to personal taste which you’ll play more: the demos of The Small Feat of My Reverie or the ‘finished’ album that is Leaves From The Family Tree; I like them both, each in their own way. For anyone new to Polly Paulusma’s music, you could do worse than grabbing a copy of each and making up your own mind; if you choose only one, you’ll not be disappointed by either, but being able to witness the creative process in action from inception (The Small Feat of My Reverie) to conclusion (Leaves From The Family Tree) is a rare privilege and a fascinating insight.

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Originally posted at Folk Radio UK (28 July 2014)

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