The term “influence” refers to an affinity between artists, aesthetic continuity, what might be dubbed expressive lineage. Frequently, influence is general and intergenerational. An older or more established artist’s work validates the tendencies of another, often younger, artist, whose work responds to and/or builds upon this precedential source. What is regularly called influence might, in many instances, be referred to more precisely as inspiration.
However, potential problems arise when a general or energetic simpatico turns more significantly concrete. Stylistic tags are reproduced; signature phrasing or audial gestalts are duplicated. The saying goes, “Imitation is the greatest form of flattery,” but in the West, and particularly in the domain of popular music, repetition or what might be euphemistically labeled emulation tends to raise eyebrows.
Then again, consider the early Beatles’ debt to Chuck Berry and Little Richard, among others; how U2’s Boy borrows heavily from the Cure. More recently, several tracks from Black Country, New Road’s debut, are, let’s say, more than casual tips-of-the-hat to Slint’s Spiderland. Issues of inspiration vs. influence and originality vs. derivation are complex matters. Listeners, in turn, consider “artistic overlaps” through varying and subjective filters.
Additionally, listeners hold disparate attitudes regarding the nature and importance of originality and what might be called “original derivation”. Does originality constitute a break with the past? Is an original work one that somehow rises independently from the history that preceded it? Is selective derivation – sources absorbed, hybridized, and transmuted – also a form of originality? Listeners, of course, encounter their own impressions case by case, based on any number of factors.
The full-length debut from King Hannah, I’m Not Sorry, I Was Just Being Me, draws unapologetically and, for the most part, innovatively from a variety of precedents. On the opening track “A Well-Made Woman”, Hannah Merrick’s breathy voice is accompanied by Craig Whittle’s dark-folk guitar line, a funereal progression that sounds like an “unplugged” Black Sabbath riff. “All Being Fine” conjures Rid of Me-era PJ Harvey, an anguished Merrick bolstered by Whittle’s avant-bluesy guitar forays. As the song unfolds, an unwavering drum part grounds the song’s otherwise mercurial feel, Whittle helming an eerily ambient noisescape that might interest Nick Cave.
With the seven-plus minute “The Moods I Get In”, Merrick’s languorous vocal, textured by Whittle’s ringing guitars and feedback, occurs as a tribute to Mazzy Star‘s Hope Sandoval. “I’m like the rain / And you’re like the sea,” Merrick moans, hinting at disempowered self-effacement and codependent auto-erasure. As the song progresses, Whittle offers a minimal yet melodic guitar solo, building toward the song’s glitchy fade-out.
“Foolius Caesar”, with its clangorous drums, fuzzy synths, and Merrick’s sleek delivery a la Portishead‘s Beth Gibbons, is, while effectively engaging, the most unadornedly derivative track on the album. “Go-Kart Kid”, on the other hand, is perhaps the project’s most distinctive take, Merrick morphing a potentially Norman Rockwell-type story about childhood into a creepy allegory. Merrick’s spoken-word approach occasionally resembles that of Dry Cleanings’ Florence Shaw. While Shaw’s lyrics are collaged and deflective, revolving around the use of provocative nonsequiturs, Merrick strives for linear narrative, employing a largely confessional tone. Also, while Shaw’s vocal is mutedly volatile, Merrick’s is unguardedly mournful.
The title song features Merrick and Whittle alternately voicing quotidian tendencies (Merrick: “I like taking my time / Deciding things sometimes,” Whittle: “I like wasting my time researching things to buy online”). The piece unfolds as a confused-slacker and Twitter-inflected take on the classic duet, both singers sounding resigned and devoid of affect, as if over-medicated. On closer “It’s Me and You, Kid”, Merrick offers her most versatile vocal performance, navigating soft-loud dynamics and dramatic fluctuations in tone, bringing to mind early Angel Olsen or Sharon Van Etten circa Are We There.
Building on the more Dionysian and possibly less self-conscious stylings of their 2020 EP, Tell Me Your Mind and I’ll Tell You Mine, King Hannah continue to hone their sound and posture. On I’m Not Sorry, I Was Just Being Me, Whittle’s sonic forays and Merrick’s downcast yet sultry vocals make for a charismatic blend. The result is a sequence at times irksomely familiar, but it also captures a vital response to the crises and perils of present-day life.