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Album review: Kelly Oliver “Bedlam”

January 14, 2016

Kelly Oliver has created an album which crosses musical boundaries, full of thought-provoking lyrics and musical arrangements this is sure to attract a wider mainstream audience to her already rapidly growing fan-base.

Click here to read an abridged version of this review at Folk Radio UK

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Cover of Kelly Oliver - BedlamAnyone with even a passing interest in the current state of play of the contemporary folk scene in the UK will surely already be familiar with the music of singer/songwriter Kelly Oliver. Since the release of her debut album This Land in 2014, she’s received a string of glowing reviews and made numerous live appearances, both as a headliner in her own right and opening for the likes of Cara Dillon, Barbara Dickson, The Young’uns and Thea Gilmore, interspersed with sessions for Bob Harris, Songs From The Shed and various radio and television spots. Somehow, among all this frenetic activity, she’s found time to write and record her new album, Bedlam, and will shortly be setting out on an extensive tour in support of its official launch.

Kelly adopted an unusual approach to the making of Bedlam by releasing four of its tracks as they were ready. In addition to offering her fans a way to keep up with her progress, it’s gained her significant attention and consequent airplay, with the video for ‘Miles to Tralee’ – recently receiving its premiere showing here at FRUK. The sound captured on Bedlam is a measure of just how far she’s come in the past year or so as a musician: it marks a radical departure from the somewhat austere “one woman and a guitar” production of This Land, mainly through the use of a range of supporting musicians in many of the arrangements, but this has been done sensitively and skilfully without compromising her identity as a solo performer. Kelly’s also taken the potentially risky step of using three different producers across the album – a process which, for many musicians, can result in a fragmented and patchy record – but I was pleasantly surprised at how well it’s worked out, with a polished sound which retains a coherent unity while allowing the individuality of her songwriting to shine through.

The opening song ‘Bedlam’ is a particularly fine example of Kelly’s skills as a lyricist, not least for its demonstration of her empathy with the subject matter. Written from the point of view of a young woman who, having given birth to an unwanted child, finds herself imprisoned in London’s notorious and ancient Bethlem Royal Hospital (the song’s title is derived from the hospital’s nickname). The song is set in the past, at a time when the hospital – which still exists today as a psychiatric facility – was representative of the worst excesses of so-called “lunatic asylums”. While it’s difficult to imagine how horrible and, apparently, common the experience of the song’s protagonist must have been, it’s a sobering thought that the practice of using shackles or restraints is still a legal option in Britain for any pregnant woman deemed to be a high security risk. Musically, it’s the first of the four songs produced by Stu Hanna who also contributes fiddle, percussion and guitar and the result is a richly layered track with Kelly’s vocals at its heart; her multitracked harmonies are especially ear-catching.

It’s followed by ‘Lay Our Heavy Heads’, featuring musical contributions (fiddle, mandolin and electric piano) from Stu. Again written from a first-person perspective, its theme is unashamedly romantic: a young man’s proclamation of a lifetime of undying love and devotion to his beloved. There’s a lightness of touch about the arrangement which moves along with an appropriate spring in its step, bolstered by syncopated percussion and some well-placed fiddle fills. I’m writing this deep in the rainy greyness that is the British winter, but this is such a pretty and optimistic tune that it’s easy to imagine the warmth of a summer’s day and briefly forget the rain lashing the window on the back of a howling gale.

‘Jericho’ is the first of two Nigel Stonier productions, which also finds him performing on a range of instruments (bass, piano and dulcimer), as well as adding backing vocals and claiming a co-writer’s credit. I’m always a little hesitant about songs with a significant input from the producer but my apprehension turned out to be misplaced as the result is undoubtedly one of the album’s highlights. Lyrically it moves between first and third-person viewpoints, a simple but effective device which is reflected in the musical movement throughout the arrangement. It’s the first track which allows Kelly to break out the harmonica, while Paul Beavis’ percussion is enough to keep it all moving along. Alan Lowles’ accordion weaves in and out but, for me, the star of the show here is Ciaran Algar: his violin playing is as good as ever but his backing vocals are an unexpected pleasure to hear. The a capella drop with Ciaran and Nigel after the bridge is perfectly placed and the whole song is a radio-friendly mix of indie-folk and pop which deserves to reach a wide audience.

Not to be confused with the well-known 19th century Irish ballad, Kelly’s own composition ‘Miles to Tralee’ nevertheless manages to capture some of the essence of ‘The Rose of Tralee’ (Roud 1978) while retaining her own distinct vocal and lyrical style at the same time as acknowledging her own roots in Ireland. Stu’s empathy for the music draws together the various musical elements – mandola, fiddle, Shruti box and tenor banjo all appear – in this breezy footstomper which, I suspect, would make a suitably raucous, audience participation number in a live setting.

The more rootsy sound that characterised Kelly’s first album can still be found on Bedlam, thanks in no small part to Lauren Deakin Davies who produced This Land and with whom Kelly again worked on ‘In the City’ and three other songs here. Lyrically a tale of urban alienation, ‘In the City’ also features Lukas Drinkwater on double bass and Lauren’s own discreet percussion. Kelly coaxes some bittersweet blues notes from the harmonica while the reverb on her vocals is just enough to call to mind the sharp edge of the downdraught from the city’s highrise skyscrapers. An evocative performance and a personal favourite.

Another of Lauren’s productions, ‘The Other Woman’, follows and its pared-back sound makes the ideal setting for Kelly’s first-person lyric about some of the downsides of falling for a married man. Musically it’s a real showcase for Kelly’s fingerstyle guitar with some nice minor/major key modulations over which her multitracked harmonies float like the morning mist while Lukas Drinkwater adds some sensitive double bass.

The version of ‘Same World’ included here is notable, partly for the longer introduction which was edited out from the radio mix with which listeners may already be familiar, and partly for its lyric, which is to be applauded for tackling the often vexed question of gender differences with wit and subtlety, pointing out that we all have more in common than we might generally think. Stu Hanna adds guitar, mandola and keyboards in this gentle, Americana-tinged ballad while Debbie Hanna adds some sweet harmony vocals; the result is a track which I can imagine becoming a favourite of drivetime radio programmers.

The deeper I’ve listened into Bedlam, the more I’ve been impressed at Kelly’s skill as a lyricist, particularly her ability to translate her social conscience into a very listenable form without either diluting the message or, conversely, hammering it home with the (lack of) subtlety of a protest march chant. The following two songs, ‘Ghosts at Night’ and ‘Die this Way’, produced by Lauren Deakin Davies, illustrate this talent well. Both are, as you might expect, quite spare arrangements – both featuring only Lukas Drinkwater’s flowing double bass counterpointing Kelly’s crystal voice and quietly confident harmonica over her intricate guitar – but it’s the lyrics that make the songs so much more than than the sum of their parts. ‘Ghosts at Night’ has an intriguing ambiguity; it may be a love letter of sorts to some random boy, but my hunch is that it’s also a commentary on the desperation felt by the increasing numbers of people displaced by war, for whom leaving their homes and families has become the only option. ‘Die this Way’ is a child’s eye view of the practical results of the various forms of violent extremism which seem to make the news headlines every day. It’s easy, and to an extent understandable, to become desensitised to this constant drip-drip of awful, horrible news so it’s to Kelly’s credit that she’s prepared to face it head on and remind us that it’s not all about angry men armed with hi-tech weapons, or faceless men in suits in some distant bunker, and that we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that there is an enormous human cost in terms of the suffering of many innocent bystanders, regardless of age.

As gloomy as my interpretations may be, they’re tempered by Kelly’s seemingly boundless optimism, as the album’s closing track ‘Rio’ demonstrates. With guest backing vocals by Thea Gilmore and production duties in the capable hands of Nigel Stonier, the result is an irresistably bouncy folk/pop paean to Rio de Janeiro which conveys the city’s energy and musical culture to make a fitting, forward-looking conclusion to the album. Nigel’s input is especially impressive, not least in the string arrangements which would give some of Tony Visconti’s more commercially successful productions a good run for their money!

With Bedlam, Kelly Oliver has created an album which crosses musical boundaries, full of thought-provoking lyrics and musical arrangements which move between stripped-down contemporary folk and full-on indie/pop without sacrificing accessibility or compromising her own integrity as a singer/songwriter. Consolidating the best aspects of her previous debut album at the same time as introducing other influences, it points the way to possible future musical avenues worthy of exploration, without leaving behind Kelly’s already large and dedicated fan base while attracting a wider mainstream audience.

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An abridged version of this review was originally posted at Folk Radio UK (14 January 2016)

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