David Hurn: He Was a Woman

Jason MacNeil

David Hurn

He Was a Woman

Label: Fire
US Release Date: Available as import
UK Release Date: 2002-09-09

Like a plethora of British folk pop singers like David Gray and more recently James Yorkston, David Hurn finds himself in a dilemma many are found in but few are able to come out of. Although his style and sensitive songs come through very clearly, how does he go about separating himself from the current horde of like-minded musicians? Or does he even give a damn? Regardless, after an opening slot with former American Music Club singer Mark Eitzel, Hurn's latest album is a fine affair of sparse instrumentation and quick mood creations.

The opening number begins with an eerie and ominous quality, but slowly evolves into an acoustic folk structure that paints a pretty sonic portrait. Although beginning with the title track, Hurn sings in a quasi-monotone style devoid of much happiness. "Murdered by his hands / Stronger than his feelings for her", Hurn sings as acoustic guitars and backing effects move in and out of the mix. The track takes a tad longer to get going and stops a tad too soon, but it's a promising start. "Don't Have To Live" is more of a contemporary folk affair that brings to mind Neil Finn or Badly Drawn Boy. Piano player Jonathan Moore adds a lot in his subtle backing harmony, and the song picks up steam by the first chorus. Another asset is how the songs teetered on the edge of mainstream but never cross the line. "Are you scared of getting old / Is your blood turning cold", he sings before the song fades.

"Books Etc." showcases Hurn at his best, not overdoing the arrangement but not short-changing himself either. Nick Drake and Scotland's Appendix Out are also appropriate comparisons for the track, with Hurn giving just enough to get his message across. Questioning the big picture and bigger questions throughout the song, Hurn offers more of a blues and roots feeling as the song concludes. "Nancy Put Yourself First for a Change" has more of a jazz-oriented flavor to it, even before the Andreas Terry's trumpet is first heard. The piano and overall sound is the loosest on the album, resulting in probably the best part of the first half. Hurn lets his voice free on more than one occasion here and is better off for it. "Unfortunate Comedy" is, unfortunately, weak and rather bland. Coming off as highbrow and arty with opening noises and a theatrical score, the song in the end is basically a waste of Eno-esque time.

The second side starts with a jug-band feeling on the pleasant and pleasing "You Don't Want to Know". Backed by a full arrangement and second acoustic guitar, the track has a lot of warmth in the vein of country rock bands like Wilco or Blue Rodeo. Unfortunately, the listener is short-changed here as the song needs another verse or two to get the full effect. Regardless though it's a welcomed fork-in-the road. Hurn takes a cue from Eitzel in the depressing "She Died Alone". A slow and deliberate traditional country feeling with traces of piano, this is very similar to the dirge-like atmosphere created by Cowboy Junkies. "She takes the pills as if they were wishes / As if they were you", is just further proof this isn't a pick-me-up tune. "No Love" has a troubadour vibe throughout it, but also has a '50s guitar sound deep in the background. You get the image of Hurn performing this with his band in a moving empty train car. This is also the loudest song of the near dozen presented.

Hurn is best when he balances the somber with being happy, but it's rare to find both in the same song. "Wait to Forget" is a decent attempt at this, but is far too heartfelt in its tone and style. Alone with his guitar and minimal backing piano, Hurn drags the listener into his narrative of shattered hearts and loneliness. "Are you strong enough to take another step / Or are you waiting to forget", are the song's closing words. The church organ that starts "Black Car" is terribly heavy-handed though, as is the performance the singer gives. Although it builds over time, it still is off-tempo and overly-orchestrated in the vein of Spiritualized. Thankfully though, the finale is "Why Is A Good Thing Always Leaving". Using his assets and putting all to use, the track has a mix of jazz and pop undercurrents while Hurn soft and fragile vocals take center stage. It's a very good conclusion to an above average offering in the vein of Damon Gough.

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