Classically trained violist Helen Bell is based in north-east England and has just released her new EP Late Night Letters, which is made up of four songs from her upcoming album. She explains: “This one is mostly about personal relationships; the next two will focus on our relationships with the physical world and the digital world.” She also found that finishing a full album at one time was a daunting task, and breaking the songs down into three EP’s made the process a little easier.
Bell has studied music at the university level but has been writing songs as long as she can remember. Her music has been classified as alt fold, psych folk and indie folk, and her sound has been described as “The Incredible String Band, The Books, The Full English, Eels, Donnacha Dennehy and White-Album-era Paul McCartney went for a picnic at a seaside fairground.” Other influences include The Decemberists and Joanna Newsom. Except for bass and drums, Bell performs all her own instruments which include piano, viola, violin, electric violin, recorders and keyboards. Recording took place in Bell’s home studio using Reaper and Fireface 400, with mixing and mastering by Bell and her partner Tom Drinkwater.
Within the first few notes of “Easier to Write” it’s clear we’re in the hands of a skilled composer and musician. Bell calls this song “fairly standard piano-based singer/songwriter fare, although with the slightly less standard addition of an EWI (electronic wind instrument).” However, there’s nothing standard about this music, as Bell seems to create a virtual symphony using just her voice, an acoustic piano and the electronic flute. I hate to use a pop culture reference here, but the EWI flute sound has the same eerie tonality as the subliminal music that plays in the darkness of the Disneyland “Pirates” ride. Her melodies are dark and intricate, yet also quite lovely, and her vocals play against the chords in constantly surprising fashion.
Lyrically, Bell says that she often starts with her words first, and tends to write a lot of them. In that way, her lyrics read as fine poetry on the page, always with an internal rhythm that lends itself to music. Here’s just a sample: “Strange how the blackbirds always seem so alarmed by the arrival of dusk… I don’t know why, but it kind of reminds me of the way / Some things are easier to write than they ever could be to say.”
“Molecule” Immediately adds most of Bell’s other instruments (mostly stings and winds) along with Tom Drinkwater’s bass and drums, making it sound like a small jazz combo. Bell speaks in her notes of being highly influenced by gamelan (or Indonesian) music, and has used some of those melodies here. This is a more upbeat song while still featuring Bell’s compositional bravado. She’s almost like a jazz-classical version of Kate Bush. In the middle section there’s a thrilling moment when the violins are routed through a wah wah pedal. A highly enjoyable track that makes you smile even with all its melodic complexity.
“Constellation” goes much deeper into Bell’s fascination with gamelan music, using “actual gamelan samples amongst piano and strings, and a few structural elements adapted from gamelan forms within its composition.” As a result this is a much more exotic track, effortlessly straddling at least two different cultures. The basic song form is another lovely Bell construction with the gamelan touches working as grace notes and set dressing.
The final track “Hymn of the Orbital” is modeled on folk hymns, and is the only track with Bell extensively overdubbing her voice against a Hammond organ patch. The lyrics seem to grapple with an unresolved love: “And I still miss the way we were so hungry / and I will grieve for the versions of us who had to die…. but now I know we circle different suns.”
I can say unreservedly that I’ve never heard music arranged and performed in quite this way before, and Bell’s facility with her instruments and her innate confidence in her material is a wonderful thing to witness. Recommended!
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