Dot writes: I’ve been buying a fair number of albums lately, some on iTunes, some from Bandcamp, one or two even in physical shops. When I bought Tash Parker’s album I got it from her website, and within ten minutes she had emailed me to say thanks for buying it and that she would put it in the post the next day. I’ve never had that happen before. Then a few days later she emailed again to say she hadn’t managed to send it before going away to see her sister, and that she would put in a little something extra to make up for the delay. The something extra turned out to be an attractive cloth bag with a block print of her face on it, which I am keeping in my handbag to use as my emergency shopping bag. She needn’t have done any of this, as I would just have blamed the slowness of the postal service; and she doesn’t even charge extra for postage (from Australia) (she really ought to as it’s quite expensive). Moreover, I love the album and now have it on heavy repeat. So here is a little review – not a very timely one, as Waking Up came out in 2010, but I think she deserves to sell a lot more copies. Maybe someone will read this and be inspired to go and buy it too.
In Not Unprepared, one of the two songs from this album that hooked me into ordering it, there’s a rather odd line in the chorus: “Her heart rocks side to side” (it goes on: “she feels warm and safe and / not unprepared for loving his face from / day to day, no longer scared of waking up alone”). It’s an unexpected image – is she on a particularly unstable train? – but at the same time a key one, because the album is full of rocking, though not of the ‘n’roll variety. Not Unprepared is one of several songs that are built around a rhythmical alternation of chords, rocking back and forth, and thematically the album repeatedly returns to ideas of comforting, sleep or sleeplessness, and fragile places of safety.
In Somers, we find ourselves in a “cosy town, slowing down”, a place where “we’ve settled in, settled down” to “warm embraces daily”, but this is a song haunted by yearning strings and less identifiable atmospheric noises, and she hears the “call of the grey bear…all around”; the song tells us both that fears are forgotten here and that they are ever-present – and also that, strangely, “it’s all that we need”. Perhaps one needs danger to feel safe. Two songs earlier, Oh What a Beautiful Town deals with rather similar territory, though here the music is partly sunny and partly wistful, while the words indicate that peace comes from privilege: “to escape is their way of life / can’t you see the world is in some strife? … so much beauty and so much money”. When It Rains – again, beginning with one of those rocking chord structures – deals with the refuge offered by a lover; the lyric conveys anxiety and need, as much from the way the words are fragmented across the musical phrases as from the details they select, before crystallising into a very specific, gently erotic image of comforting touch: “3/4 time in my mind from when you played on my thigh through thin sheets till early near the dawning… you are my light when it rains”.
Tash Parker may be interested in refuges but she isn’t running away from anything. The album opens on one of the most upbeat numbers (and one of my favourites), Move Around, which is all jazz chords and patters of snare drum. It impressionistically evokes a world of restless hyper-connectedness, of “lonely lovers” who have “heart to hearts with tiny technology”, and points out that “children don’t come from little tubes, they come from me and you”. Put down the mobile phone and let’s get it on. Not Unprepared then follows, portraying a girl leaving home and travelling south to live with her lover. It’s a happy song but also a clear-sighted one, aware of what is being left behind (“her last warm night for the year”), and the double negative of the title phrase, which does something more complicated than simply cancel out and mean “prepared”, conveys the sense that love makes demands for which one can never be more than mostly ready.
I Take the Blame is the other song that had lodged in my head before I bought the album. It explores an interesting emotional space: Tash says on her website that it “is a song about recognising that your actions may have hurt or changed someone, and that you can be sorry for their pain or sadness without feeling regret for your actions”. To me the chorus seems to go a bit further than this – tender but morally steely, with sleep here an image of inadequacy: “Sleep well my dear, life only happens when your eyes are open, you’ll realise that life is always chosen [I’m not sure I agree with her about that], you’ll learn your lesson…” But it’s tempered by the gorgeous music, which expands into rich layers in the chorus under her most irresistibly singable melody. Later on she deals with the collapse of a relationship, in Taking Back Her Name. Again according to her website, this is a song about her parents’ divorce, but in a number of ways it links to Not Unprepared. One link is the re-use of the phrase “day to day”, but another is the way it offers both the man’s and the woman’s perspectives. In Not Unprepared the section about the man’s feelings was filtered through the woman’s attraction to him (“he smiles that smile that takes her breath away”) but in Taking Back Her Name it’s actually more symmetrical, with the female and male characters each recognising that there is “no one else to blame”.
Tash Parker has one of those voices that sounds high at any pitch. Ken remarked that she sounded like Nina Persson of The Cardigans, but she doesn’t have that breathy girliness that I find a bit irritating; her voice is pure, clear and precise. It could almost be called innocent, and the instrumentation of the album plays with that – lots of delicate sounds, zither and xylophone (though nobody is credited with playing xylophone so I wonder if the sound in question might just be high notes on the vibes?) – but actually it’s not, and indeed she can be quite saucy, as in Baby All the Time. Her voice and her acoustic guitar playing, which again tends bring out the higher notes in the instrument, are the core of the album’s sound, but around these elements are built some really beautiful arrangements, mostly strings and tuned percussion. On most of the songs she worked with J. Walker of Machine Translations, and getting Tash’s album has prompted me to take the plunge and finally buy The Bright Door, which I’ve been slightly flinching from on the grounds that the reviews are so ecstatic I wonder if it can actually be as enjoyable to listen to as it apparently is to write about. (Hmm. Maybe writing this wasn’t such a great idea after all.)
Two of the songs are produced by Wally De Backer, who also contributes “vocals, percussion, organ, autoharp, vibes, keyboards, piano and just about anything else he could find at the time”, and who happens to be Tash Parker’s partner. I admit it was through Gotye that I heard of her. (Not sure why I feel I should apologise for this.) One wonders whether it was at all odd for him to sing backing vocals on a love song to himself, but I expect songs become sets of problems to tackle while they are being arranged and recorded, before turning back at the end into messages and gifts and wakeful lullabies. The other thing, however, that strikes me about the connection, especially as he must have been working on Tash’s album and on Making Mirrors at least partly at the same time, is that Somebody That I Used to Know in many ways sounds more like one of her songs than one of his. The loop from the Luis Bonfa piece that it’s built around, rocking back and forth, the xylophone and the dual perspective (though more conflicted than any of hers) all seem rather her thing.
Anyway, nice person, beautiful album: go forth and acquire it.