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British singer/songwriter Lotte Mullan has teamed up with Band of Horses to create an album steeped in Americana. Lotte's biting wit and knack for a classic couplet shine through, and there's the unmistakable sound of Bill Reynolds production throughout, giving the whole project an authentic Band of Horses sheen.
A while back, I saw Lotte Mullan play a small scale intimate gig in the centre of London, that had all of the hallmarks of an insiders, or in-the-know affair. I went on the insistence of a friend, who is in the music business, but the right end of it, someone you can waste many hours with discussing the joys of music and whose opinion I trust. The point being that Lotte was really good, I mean really good. She has a great voice in all senses, melodic and articulate, with that latter characteristic further embellishing a short, but very sweet set of songs with a peppering of killer lines. All bar one of those songs played that night are now released on the excellent Love's Bonfire, the album she's recorded in Nashville with the help of Band Of Horses, an album of surprise and delight in equal measure.
I guess the other point in that intro is that Lotte has a happy knack of drawing right thinking people into her world, although not always in the most obvious ways. Tastemaker gigs in London are one thing, but the fact that Lotte has recorded with Band Of Horses, something which she's organised herself, even turning down the overtures of a major record label in the run up, shows a degree of daring and determination. She takes great delight in describing the chance to work with a hairy rock band, although in fairness they seem to have toned down to offer sympathetic and quite superb support to Lotte's songs.
Then there's the blog. Lotte started writing up her experiences of being in the music business, starting with when she was working part time for a major label, while at the same time trying to get noticed for her own music. A wryly funny account of some not entirely scrupulous people's occasional misbehaviour, allied to hopes and dreams receiving a regular slap down, with small shot of triumph here and there, the comic potential has been recognised and the film right secured by no less than Elton John's Rocket Pictures.
On the film front four of her songs were also used by Ridley Scott' production Company for a short film called Kismet Diner, which got major exposure through YouTube and also won first prize in a Manhattan short film festival. Lotte's also had her version of Labi Siffre's It Must Be Love used for a Netflix commercial, continuing that company's radar tuned towards artists with potential rather than those with star status already welded on. Lotte may not have that yet, but she's on the train and the train seems to be on the right track.
Interestingly Lotte's hairy American rock band have a great love of English bands, especially the likes of the Smiths and The Clash. To some degree or another they've turned Lotte's self confessed love of Nashville, or perhaps that should be more clearly defined as the intelligent end of country music into what she's described as something of a Transatlantic mash-up. As she tells me, 'They wanted to talk about the Smiths and I wanted to talk about Willie Nelson so we met somewhere in the middle and the record was made in 8 days. It strikes me in Nashville they are very aware of what the heart of a song is and the fact that the music is the meat and bones' not about trying to be clever or spending hours trying to find the right sound but about telling a story in the right way.'
The production if anything is lighter and more ethereal, atmospheric and textured than you might expect, certainly on the strength of Band Of Horses last two albums. Both have gone Top 20 on both sides of the Atlantic, but also charted well across Scandinavia. There's something about that too. Perhaps it's that some of the European bands, perhaps those that favour singing in English particularly, take influence from both America and Britain. Still there's something here and had I been told this was recorded in say Malmo rather than Nashville, then it wouldn't have seemed odd. Perhaps it's just the way I'm hearing it, but any-which-way this is a great sounding record. The 10 songs are superb, full of Lotte's trademark lyrical prowess and with a couple of stone-wall heartbreakers amongst them.
Describing the recording Lotte told me, 'The album was record in Nashville in a beautiful studio surrounded by trees. It's Bill Reynold's place (Band of Horses bass player) and he had recently bought it from Jay Joyce who made records there with Emmylou Harris and Patty Griffin so there was history ringing in the air. I felt like the God of Rock n Roll was on my side!'
America On My Mind sounds like a highly appropriate starting point, but these are memories of a love that fails to come to the boil in the summer sun of California. Our English rose is the product of colder climes and sadly has to admit that the romance has been reduced to a song, as the memory of her wild haired beau lives on, 'But only ever if it rhymes,' to a tune that has an echo of Suzanne about it. I'm sure the bard of the bedsit broken hearted would applaud the lines, 'I read all of his love letters, knowing I could have written them better,' too. Musically it's a slow burn, with Lotte's voice layered up adding to the wistful feel.
If that's a bold opener then Jonathan find the priapic subject on the end of a withering put down from Lotte. 'You hold your crotch like a crucifix,' she sings above a churning rhythm track and wailing harmonica, leaving no doubt that the man in her sights is out of line and out of step. It's a track heavy with pathos, but Lotte also makes it clear that Jonathan deserves everything he gets, because, 'As soon as I pity you, you take another round, waiting like a crocodile 'til the boat goes down.'
Lotte has a gift for hitting on little details too, so there are the matching denim outfits of the opener and in I'm Still Here there's, 'I was painting the kitchen when it rained I was gonna go for lilac but I just kept it the same.' It's a perfect metaphor for a life lived without passion or excitement as a relationship drifts into the discomfort of over familiarity, but not necessarily contentment.
The song also gives the most obvious clues as to how the record was made and Lotte has explained, 'I recorded all the songs on acoustic guitar with Bill first and then the band came in and laid down their parts. I have never seen such quick and instinctive work. There was very little conversation, they just listened to my acoustic demos and a bit of me rambling about what the song was about and then played their parts' Here the band start with a hint of organ and then into some crunching guitar, as Lotte tries to stir the passions.
There are other songs where Lotte is fighting against the constraints of relationships on the slide, but into more dangerous emotional territory. Bad For Me finds Lotte agonising, 'You're the salt in my wound, You're the sting in my tail,' before conceding, 'Every plays tragedy every broken melody, Each and every one of them is you.' In I Don't Believe You she's caught between love and heartbreak as she sings, 'Trouble is we've got this spark, Keeps us together and tears us apart, We're enemies and best of friends, Our favourite part is making up again.'
Elsewhere she is on the outside looking in, although the view is no less rosy on It's Not True Love as Lotte admonishes, 'You will break her heart and then you'll break your own,' over a delicious country waltz that mixes a little Loretta or Patsy, with a hint of fuzztone and pedal and slide guitar. In Wake Up Next To You, however, the song heads off at a gallop and she's in predatory mood, as the opening lines purr, 'I love the way you love someone else, I'd like to get some of that for myself.' At least in I Hope It Breaks Your Heart, the obvious choice for the first single, she's on the outside looking back at the wreckage, as the dust settles and the distance grows. The steady repetition of the title seems to gain more venom and the churning guitars and steady pounding of drums add to the drama.
If I've played about with the running order for narrative here, the last two songs on the record are both heartbreakers. Dear Elvis is a letter to the King of rock'n'roll written by a child who sees his mother stop crying when Elvis comes on the radio. There is both the simmering threat of violence and the unanswered letters, but with it just a glimmer of hope in the power of music. That power finds itself in You Must Have Loved Him Once, a letter to Lotte's own parents, who obviously suffered their own emotional battles, but the lines, 'You were God til I was seven, Then you just fell out of heaven,' show the hurt from a child's eye view.
Band of Horses play their part really well and Lotte tells me, 'My favourite thing about this record is how effortless it sounds and that's because the experience was so relaxed. I was surprised I didn't come back to London with a straight ahead country record - part of me had expected that. I made a decision on the plane over to not go into the studio with too many pre-conceived ideas about how things should sound (I've done this before and its never worked out). I tried to go with the good feeling in the room and trust these guys - they've known each other a long time and made many wonderful records so I figured the only thing that could mess it up was me.'
Finally she adds, 'Bill was a total sweetheart as a producer. A common trait of producers can be to be pretty controlling, for obvious reasons, but I didn't manage to find Bill's ego at all! It was really refreshing. We ate burritos, went to yard sales and drove around in his truck listening to loud country music. I'm not sure I'd like to make a record any other way.' And if this is the result, then nor should she.
It may not be the country record she crossed the Atlantic for, but there are songs here that you can hear storming the country chart. With all of the emotional turmoil of love's trials so brilliantly captured, it perhaps puts Lotte in the same kind of territory as Shelby Lynne and Lucinda Williams and, from this perspective at least, that's one hell of a good place to be.
Plane Groovy label Audiophile vinyl release.
1. America On My Mind (4:20)
2. Jonathan (4:06)
3. I'm Still Here (3:45)
4. Bad For Me (3:28)
5. I Hope It Breaks Your Heart (3:46)
1. It's Not True Love (4:25)
2. I Don't Believe You (4:03)
3. Wake Up Next To You (3:29)
4. Dear Elvis (3:46)
5. You Must've Loved Him Once (4:42)