This little-heralded gem got Mercury shortlisted in the UK, but seems to have dropped under the radar here. Move over Vashti Bunyan and Kath Bloom, here's another deceptively simple, wise and utterly lovely album.
"A wise man said to me / Don't underrate simplicity / So I stripped my life away / And try to live each day by day... and feel each moment". Those are the first lines from Lou Rhodes's debut solo album, recorded after the break-up of her marriage and her long-time musical partnership, the trip-hop/drum 'n bass duo known as Lamb. A messy period followed, with Rhodes living out of a van with her two children, until she found a haven at Ridge Farm, a rural English commune, where these lovely, lush, yet pristinely simple songs were written and laid to tape.
Beloved One, released in the UK more than a year ago, has been slow in coming to the States, despite its appearance on the Mercury Prize shortlist, alongside much better known artists like the Arctic Monkeys and Thom Yorke. Modestly wonderful, self-contained, and infused with the perspective of a mature woman, it's so far out of the usual run of pop that record companies most likely didn't know what to do with it. Here's a hint: Put the record on. Breathe. Enjoy.
Warm, natural, and honest, these songs arise out of rich meshes of folk guitar, cello, and hand-slapped drums. They are burnished to a fine glow, yet not at all overworked. The rhythms are precise, delicate, and syncopated, but they disappear easily into the fabric of these songs. Similarly the guitar work is modestly gorgeous, providing a context for Rhodes's voice without overwhelming it. And, let's cut to the chase here: Her voice, fragile in spots, tremulous as a child's, yet reaching low with jazzy flourishes, is an extraordinary thing. She can sound like a 1960s folk chanteuse on one cut ("Each Moment New", for instance), then, with a very subtle shift, transform herself into torchy sensuality (on the jazz-chorded, stop-step "Tremble" one song later).
The lyrics, given her recent past, are wryly self-aware, tough-minded but not bitter. "Tremble" fits a lyric about fluttery sexual attraction to a darting, syncopated bossa nova, the meaning matching the musical mood precisely. Later, "Save Me" is plaintive and pure, Rhodes's slurry vulnerability slipped into a hesitant lattice of guitar and accented with throbs of cello. And "Fortress", with its sensual bass slides and airy vocals, is a clear-eyed portrait of romantic isolation, a woman like "A lost little girl / Crying out to be seen / And loved tenderly". Anyone who's been through the back-end of a long-term relationship will find much to love in these unflinching observations -- anyone who hasn't should feel a little chill. But it's not all darkness. "The End" is almost a sing-along, with Rhodes leading a pack of well-wishers through a multi-voiced rollick. You have to think of her finally finding a place to belong, people who love her, a room where she can record her songs, as the happy ending to both her story and the record itself.
The music world doesn't have much room for women who've lived as much as Lou Rhodes -- who've been married, had kids, hit the rough patches, and lived to tell about it. That's a shame, because there's an overbrimming sense of soul in records like Beloved One. It's not just that the music is lovely or the words perceptive -- more that there's something deeply true and perceptive about this woman's work that transcends every definition of pop.