[5 March 2012]
Those who find Florence Welch’s mainstream success off-putting, and her theatrics a bit too treated, have reason to take comfort in Beth Jeans Houghton’s more low-key compositions. Being signed to Mute and calling her full-length debut Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose makes it clear Houghton won’t be a musical guest on Saturday Night Live or playing shows in Central Park anytime soon. Yet, Houghton’s music is far from being suitably odd enough to warrant its loopy album title or Houghton’s stage persona (think tiger suits and PJ Harvey’s make-up kit circa To Bring You My Love). Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose has an intriguing grab bag mentality, but one wonders if a little focus would help in making Houghton’s music more memorable.
Houghton is one of those pretty folk nymphs who could easily double as a model for an all-natural pore-cleanser. But she’s versed in odder sounds – Frank Zappa is a favourite – than some of her peers and has some impressive collaborators: Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose is produced by Ben Hillier, who took the same credit on Think Tank by Blur. Houghton seems to be the best of all worlds, but is she really? Her songs are fairly unpredictable, but they are also quite a ways from revolutionary. There is no eye-opening revision of folk here, but then again Houghton is only 21. It may be unfair to expect Houghton to reinvent a genre when she doesn’t even like being labeled as folk. An alternative tag dreamed up by the bassist for her backing band, The Hooves of Destiny, is “sonic theatre,” and, no, this man did not choke on his own pretension after coining that.
The highs on the album are galaxy-bound. “Dodecahedron” is stirring, particularly during its outro when Houghton’s voice floats over the backing chorus laid out by her Hooves. In subject, it covers slightly similar material to Laura Marling’s “Night Terror” but makes something far more ethereal out of the subject matter. “Sweet Tooth Bird” is a peppy and shambling opener that saves itself from some made-up label like folk-garage through the inclusion of some catchy trumpeting.
Houghton’s voice is far less showy than some of her peers, but she still has an impressive amount of vocal dexterity, particularly on softer songs like the almost soulful “Veins.” Houghton’s guitar playing, however, suffers from being too consistently jaunting. Musically overall, the galloping beat motif throughout the album wears with continued listens. Another mismeasured ingredient is spoken word diversions, a route taken in the back-to-back tracks “Atlas” and “Nightswimmer.” When this trail is discarded halfway through, investing in it in the first place feels a bit senseless.
Houghton certainly has chops and much can be forgiven thanks to her age. Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose has enough bright moments to ensure that Houghton will hone her experimentation in time. As lovely as it would be for Houghton to start cramming some Zappa-styled ideas into her songs, it is apparent that Houghton wants her songs to stick. Yours Truly, alas, just wasn’t made with a strong enough adhesive.