Mel Parsons – Slowburn
(Cape Road Recordings)
Reviewed by Tim Gruar.
Layered harmonies, melancholic strings, soaring guitars and smoky vocals define Mel Parsons’ indie-folk sound.
Her fifth release is an album of two halves. The first half gives you more of her trademark smoky, broody, Southland-tinged Americana. The second is a selection of more upbeat, almost rockin’ numbers.|
The material on this disc was all written at Parsons’ home, then recorded and produced with Josh Logan (who also plays on the album) at LOHO in Ōtautahi. Logan leads the band, playing guitars, piano and providing backing vocals, alongside Parsons’ cousin Jed Parsons (drums and backing vocals), Aaron Stewart (bass) and Parsons herself. While some producers are prone to add their own signature to the work, with Logan, you get the feeling this was all Parsons’ doing. It certainly interlocks with her previous music.
Opener, ‘Lights’ emerges from the fog, strings like a yawning, awakening. References to the flowering of a kowhai, a sign of spring after the winter of discontent. But Parsons is cautious, in her chorus “when the lights can’t always be on, you can’t expect that I’ll always be strong”. The lines perfectly capture the National mood which followed the pandemic. The song completes with a communal mission: “Everyone’s wading through. Everyone’s running forward with their eyes closed.” Effectively, we are there now. We keep calm and carry on. Because we have to. You can layer up meaning depending on your own personal experiences and situation, because this is a universal message.
The title track carries on the theme, beginning with the obvious: “It’s been a hard year, with highs and lows”. You can read this song and it’s title anyway you like. But to these ears, it feels like the term ‘Slow burn’ refers to the hesitating, cautious approach to adjusting to post-pandemic life.
“I’m slow on the lesson I’m slow on the learn/ I guess I’m just a slow burn/ I’m slow on the lesson I’m slow on the learn/ I guess I’m just a slow burn.” Vocally, Cousin Jed helps her out in the chorus, adding textures and dimensions.
With the sultry, country-swing, this music could easily be re-interpreted a few years later, and I hope it will, as the voice of one toe-dipping into a new relationship, worried about being hurt, but taking it on anyway. Or revival by a friend during a bout of depression: “Never had joy like this before/ Never had pain so hard so raw/ When you came along, I was down in the depths/ Lucky stone around my neck.”
There’s a ‘pull you up by the bootstraps’ moment in ‘Carry On’. A clear reference to the desperation caused by isolation. The song was released a little while back and was an anthem of sorts for people going through the lockdowns, even though it was much prior to border closures and traffic light regulations.
The song begins with the call “I have a heavy heart and it needs a shoulder/ Honey inside external soldier/ Oh, but I have arms and they need to hold ya.” Then a yearning to be that strong stoic figure, in the face of adversity. “I wish I was a ship steady and strong/ There’s nothing I can do but carry on.”
Again, this Pandemic theme could be re-appropriated later to describe coping at the end of relationship, particularly the lines “I wish I could wind back where I went wrong/ There’s nothing I can do but carry on.” And that’s why these songs will have legs way beyond recent memories of the past few years. To hear them in 2, 5, 10 years and put our own meaning on them will, in a way show we really have carried on.
‘Going Under’ is a little bit more unspecific, and another universal theme about coping or not coping. “I’m going under, don’t wait around, this might take time”, she sings. This is a big swelling ballad, swirling clouds of sound suck up despair and separation into a whirlpool of emotions.
‘Already Gone’ is more upbeat and yet still dark and punchy. A separatist vibe, a sense of escape from a bitter relationship or a bad situation. This is the dilemma of still being present in a relationship, yet emotionally gone. Moved on. It seems personal. I wonder if it harks back to some earlier encounter.
The scars remain, under the surface – still there but unseen. The flash of a solo from Logan at the end heightens the anxiety and the rush to flee. It’s a common trope in country music, but it works a treat.
‘Headland’ has a colonial theme, with references to pioneers and “the hardness they would trudge, looking out to the headlands, looking out above”. I imagine a farmer’s daughter looking to escape the shackles of her self-imposed melancholy and isolation looking for inspiration in the history and hardship that her ancestors went through battling the environment and the boundaries between the land and the sea. If you live in Lyttleton, as Parsons does, it’s hard to escape this history, or the rugged coastline that informs the song. While the song rallies naturally around a climatic chorus, it’s the very cool jazzy piano bridge provided by Logan.
Her lyrics are melancholic and sometimes dark, but the voice is smooth and reassuring, a clear juxtaposition that works well. The flavours were honed back on her ‘Darklands’ album and these all come through again. That is in part because of Josh Logan’s production and guitar playing which offsets Parsons’ understated, brooding soundscapes. You get a warm, yet slightly edgy mix between folk, country rock and the Americana we equate with bands like the Felice Brothers or singers such as Lucinda Williams.
On ‘Tired of Being You’ Parsons’ finally releases on full bore, rocking out in a self-parody dedicated to the sheltered travelling artist who ignores the world around them, forever focused on the road ahead and the next sound check. Like many writers in the past few years, maybe Parsons took the time to review her own situation, to shove a stick in her own hamster wheel of tour-release-tour, breath a little. “You’re winning the busy-ness contest,” she sings, “looks like your diary’s jam-packed… look at all the flights in your flights app… wow you must really be killing it, another lunch in the lounge ok.” She brings in a bit of Country twang and grind on this one. The irony and dryness remind you of Courtney Barnett or even Casey Chambers. The video has Parsons arriving at a party and being gifted back things she’d left behind on tour (the price of fame) – her tui award, a drink, a soccer ball to play with the kids, an autograph requested by a fan, a drink, her baby?
‘Darkness’ is another great rocking track, with lyrics that seem to juxtapose the melody straight up. This is the most pop that Parsons will get. Definitely her most commercial sound, anyway.
The album finishes with a song that could almost be a conversation between parent and child. ‘Still Got Time’. It begins with a beautiful under-drone and some violins to create a well crafted atmosphere of yearning.
The cover of this album gives off the impression of slight desperation, the sickly green being a nod to the illness of the last two years. But don’t let that put you off. This is possibly Parson’s best, her strongest and most direct. The only way it could be better is to see her live this October.
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