Since 1999, when she was picked up by One Little Indian’s British division, Sandy Dillon has been a virtual unknown despite releasing challenging and often eclectic albums. If you go back in her history, she’s been going on being unknown for nearly two decades. Still having two albums from her days at Elektra unreleased in the mid-1980s, Dillon has worked with Mick Ronson, Ray Majors, and in a band called Quiet Melon with former members of the Kinks. But these releases are very difficult to find. Nonetheless, Dillon is persistent and her debut North American release finds her in line with the likes of Bjork and perhaps, more importantly, PJ Harvey. The cover has her looking as if she’s painfully parted with a long lost love, and the track “Feel the Way I Do” does nothing to diminish that notion. Her vocals are perhaps something that takes a couple of verses to get used to, but it’s a fragility that hasn’t been heard since Marianne Faithful. The piano lullaby has Dillon singing about “burning a thousand years than feeling the way I do”. By the time the last notes are played on the song, you’re pretty much hooked.
“It Must Be Love” is more of a ‘60s-era pop tune with lush production values and a creeping, eerie guitar riff that sets it all in motion. Dillon takes it down a different path as the backbeat is more like a hip-hop or even trip-hop tempo, making it flow all the better. “I’ve been caught in a love thing”, she sings before strings enter the chorus without much hesitation. Her childlike vocals nail the chorus while she takes it down a darker and groovier alleyway with a hypnotic and engaging coda like Canadian act Wild Strawberries, a kind of tribal electro-pop. It might also be the closest she’ll come to rocking out anytime soon. Dillon’s sultry sophistication comes naturally on “The Stain”, which improves on the previous effort, more attractive and quite catchy. Its chorus has her doing a quasi-Macy Gray performance while everything is reeled back into the moody, murky underbelly. She also fleshes out the song completely, squeezing every last drop out of the refrain.
It’s a fine line, though, between moving in the right and wrong directions. “Shoreline” is a crisp effort with a sharp backbeat and sprawling keyboard and guitar effects in the background. But the overall feel is more of a downer in terms of quality. It’s her first “breather” on the album, resulting in the album stalling slightly despite backing vocals from Heather Nova. “Let’s Go for a Drive” atones for this with another sultry, hushed delivery that immediately lures you in for the jazzy, lounge arrangement. The song rarely falters with a sparse Massive Attack flair. “A Girl Like Me” is again a primitive trip through electronica pop but the backbeat and Dillon are able to fuse their small differences perfectly. The bass line is what propels the effort along, sounding like something from Lisa Stansfield’s back catalog.
Another asset with Dillon is her refusal to be the sugar-coated pop diva, although she gives one that impression on the stale and far too sweet “Honeymoonee”. Meanwhile, the title track resembles another pop tune, especially the opening to Neil Finn’s “Sinner” from his Try Whistling This. The song isn’t the easiest to whistle, though, as she gives a better than average performance. What misses the mark completely is the bland and uninspired B-side quality “Now You’re Mine”, which has all the trademarks of that flash-in-the-pan Appleton song. “Can’t Make You Stay” follows a singer-songwriter style with an acoustic guitar replacing the electronica foundation she’s laid thus far. It’s a very solid departure, although the title line is often repeated too much. Another huge surprise is the rousing rocker “Don’t Blame You Now”, a radio-friendly tune that opens with an arrangement similar to JXL’s remix of Elvis Presley’s “A Little Less Conversation”. While the album might not make the great inroads she may expect, the name of Sandy Dillon will become more recognizable with this very good record.