Let’s get one thing straight right away: Beth Jeans Houghton says that her music is “not bloody folk.” That’s cool with me; she can be a petulant artiste if she feels like it. Even though her eagerly anticipated first proper LP with band The Hooves of Destiny, Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose, is sprinkled with the melodic sensibility of good indie pop and the glitter of glam rock, it is based primarily in the traditions of folk. I certainly find the comparisons between her and singer-songwriters like Laura Marling to be a bit misguided and personally see her work as being more similar to that of Bat for Lashes’ Natasha Khan, but again, that doesn’t mean there aren’t tendencies and patterns to her sound. Let’s put it like this: I am not usually very inclined to listen to or really appreciate much folk music, but Yours Truly grabbed me and held me from my first listen and I’m happy to say that I have yet to be released from Houghton’s musical and artistic grip. That could be read as hyperbole to some, but such is the beauty and freshness of this record, I feel.
Still based in her native Newcastle, Houghton is a visual mishmash in her ever-changing wigs and bizarre, often circus-like wardrobe. The songs on Yours Truly are reminiscent of being under the big top too, all swirling horns and pulsating piano. Houghton originally surfaced in 2009 with the alternative folk Hot Toast EP and then quietly fell under the radar for a while, resurfacing now with an album that reflects the years of work evidently gone into it. Even as she’s cavorted with the likes of American freak folksters Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom as well as London band Tunng, Houghton’s continually keen to shirk those pesky classifications that lump her in with the rest of this nu-folk scene. I don’t blame her at all, actually; Yours Truly is the most transcendent album I’ve heard in, well… a long time. It deserves its own moment.
Opener “Sweet Tooth Bird” hits all at once: the snare drum and horns in combination sound a bit like a marching band, but Houghton’s voice tempers that rigorous sensibility with its languorous huskiness. The fast-paced clip established on this song doesn’t take a real break for the rest of the album, instead waning moderately on less frenetic tracks, but otherwise “Sweet Tooth Bird” is an energetic and accurate indicator of what’s to come. Here Houghton sings about a bird she’s shot and killed. That, along with a passage of soaring piano topped with dementedly warped vocals, lends a surreal sense of unease to the song. The beautiful “Humble Digs” trundles along steadily with the aid of some well-placed banjo, but where the track really stands out as special is halfway through when the banjo subsides to make way for a stately procession of horns and choir. It’s an unexpected touch that comes out of nowhere, but it is exactly moments like this where Houghton’s songcraft rises above that of her peers. Her voice deftly lifts out of the phrase with a charming little bend, and the folk perfection of the verses continues, this time with added strings and vocal harmonies for emotional emphasis. “Dodecahedron” opens with the surreal line “Last night I dreamt of dodecahedrons/My eyes were bleeding with crimson sight,” delivered liltingly atop a subdued, syncopated background of bells and horns. The song becomes more powerful, however, when Houghton stops singing words and stuns with a baroque-pop vocal figure that fades away to sparse drum beats. Again a chorus joins her for the second to last line, her voice harmonizing high above the earthy voices below.
“Atlas” picks up the pace again with a rousing drum figure and keeps up that pace, excepting a couple of places where Houghton sadly sings “Ride swift through the houses like blood rides through me, red wine and whiskey are no good for me/Dissecting the atlas for places we’ve been, your list is longer but you’ve got more years on me.” “Nightswimmer” is accented by ethereal harmonies and skittering drums, meanwhile the lyrics are about how love is like drowning, exemplified with the words “You’re only my only love/And I can’t keep my head up above.” There’s also an intermittent little fluttering flourish in the background that ends the song on a mystical note. “Liliputt” begins deceptively softly with haunting voice and ukulele, but soon quickens and gallops away on an achingly beautiful string line. The pause midway through for the refrain “These hooves have had their day/If I stay I won’t survive” is disarming in its intimacy, but it resurfaces at the end of song with a different lyric and wreaks emotional havoc all over again. So far I haven’t been able to listen to it without tearing up. I’ve also embedded the video below, partially to give a glimpse of Houghton’s visual aesthetic and partially to share another song from this incredible album. I also love the idea that in it she’s apparently being haunted by figures from classic paintings.
“Veins” begins languidly with a warm soul groove that suits Houghton’s voice perfectly. Suddenly it morphs into frantic indie pop powered by forceful piano stabs and multitracked harmonies. The final line “nothing’s ever going to be the same” is carried out by a lively violin melody. “Carousel” seems to be named for the revolving, circling quality of its music. Indeed, it is the sound of a funhouse, complete with a maniacal, mechanical cackle that abruptly stops as if a door’s been shut and hollow metallic bells and chimes. This is complemented with an ornate violin and piano interlude that soothes away the spookiness.
Going back on my previous assertion, I do think there is some validity to Houghton’s being compared to Laura Marling. I prefer to think of Houghton’s sound, however, as being influenced by artists like Shara Worden and Alison Goldfrapp as much as by Marling. There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on here, to be sure. Anyway, reductive comparisons don’t do Houghton many favours – she’s an emerging artist in her own right and her particular combination of musical styles and distinctive presentation definitely make her one to watch. All told, this is an album to burrow into, to discover and rediscover, to dance to and cry to. I can all but guarantee that Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose will reappear at the end of the year on this blog, by then worn in and comfortable but no less magical.
Buy Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose from Houghton’s website here.