[31 October 2007]
“I guess one could say I’m a slave to music. But I’d like to think it’s a slave to me; the one thing that’s constant as I meander through life, the one thing I can control…”
The potential of the internet is finally starting to shine through in the music world. Apart from giving Sandi Thom, Panic! At the Disco, Job for A Cowboy and free downloading a boost, it’s also creating an outlet for brightly talented but wildly alternative singers like Gregory & the Hawk to build a career from.
Cleverly pouncing on the extreme hype that next to everyone worked up late last year over the release of Joanna Newsom’s Ys, Gregory & the Hawk’s (in reality one Meredith Godreau) debut album In Your Dreams builds on a well-received EP, Boats & Birds, that established her cult following. While both singers seem to exist in an indie-folk carving of their own nature, Godreau’s instrument of choice is the acoustic guitar rather than the harp, and far from being mastered at Abbey Road, her CD was recorded almost entirely in her own bedroom.
It sounds like it. The disc revolves around her and her fingertips gently plucking on an acoustic guitar, marked by a complete absence of percussion, or almost anything else for that matter. Her soulful, wispy high voice is so fragile that it probably wouldn’t survive the strains of anything that had been put through an amplifier, but is right at home ambling through her own dreamy arrangements, sounding unblemished by the outside world. The note she scrawls in the liner notes crediting herself as playing the ‘axe’ is, presumably, intended as irony.
In the sense that irony is saying one thing and meaning another, that has a large part to play in Godreau’s poetry. “Kill the Turkey” could be an indignant championing of vegetarian causes on paper. “Kill the cow / Slit his throat, let him bleed / Make steaks, make burgers / Good to eat”. Yet in the hands of Gregory & the Hawk, it could just as easily her musing on a relationship. That speaks for most of the direction of In Your Dreams as every meandering progression is set to metaphor all-sorts and served dipped in whimsy.
The bedroom job keeps a key lo-fi edge present, making it ear pleasing without (thankfully) being pretty, even when she decides to take the less cryptic route. “Sets” finds her “trying to write a song that says I love you”, but even so, she can’t quite abandon her irony, sounding more bemused than frustrated. “Neither Freer” is captivating in its unclouded simplicity, Meredith’s yearning whisper, at once optimistic and melancholy-tinged, floating through the cut like a leaf on the breeze, and “Oats We Sow” is a downright disarming gem.
One of several attempts to expand the scope of the disc, “Memory & Honesty” conjures an almost psychedelic mood thanks to a demented string section that sweeps up and down the track in distorted, angular arcs, challenging the reassuring continuity of the guitar, and somehow the clash of strings is graceful, enchanting even. Godreau? She’s fantasizing about “a dream where you loved me. And when I woke the mirror said to me, maaaaaybe...” A chirruping vocal overlay on “Sweet Winter Hello” draws even more attention to just how airy and sweet Godreau’s voice really is. With only one EP under her belt, she’s already found a unique, innocent intonation. She knows how to compliment herself, and that’s why In Your Dreams works.
Intensity is not a word one would usually associate with Gregory & the Hawk. But even the title of the set hints at a deeper, more cognitive connection with the music. The songs Godreau puts to tape don’t make up an album so much as a collection of memories. In addition, she has a special intimacy with her instrument. Her modal Appalachian patterns come naturally, and are as perfect an accompaniment as I could think of for her voice. In Your Dreams is all about Meredith and her guitar… and what magic, what intensity, she can create from that guitar.
It’s easy to see why artists like her and Joanna Newsom are so highly thought of at the moment. First is their dedication to the music, challenging what you might think ‘music’ to be. Secondly, what they create has such a warmth and timbre to it, as bare and plaintive as it is, that couldn’t come from anywhere else. That draws you in each time you listen, and it’s then that you realize how special it is.