Friday, February 27, 2009

Live Review: Ane Brun at the Union Chapel

To the Union Chapel in Highbury, and what must surely be the finest venue in London if you like your music semi-sacred. Candles, pews, high windows, stained glass: most bands or singers would seem embarrassingly racous and ramshackle in such a perfect place. Not so Ane Brun. Over the course of an enthralling evening, she and her amazing singers fill the air with songs of powerful beauty every bit as marvellous as the architecture.

After the Fleet Foxes snooze fest, one tiny part of my brain had heretically wondered just how entralling an experience a girl with a guitar could possibly be. That part of my brain has been placed in stocks for a week of ritual humiliation: this was perhaps the most bewitching gig I've been to since the first time I saw Jeff Buckley. The acoustics in this wonderful space are so good, Brun singing solo would have been joy enough. But she was in fact joined by a girl's best friends, her "Diamonds", three sirens that provided the spell-binding harmonies that elevated this experience into the realm of the magical. So well did Ane and the singers from Wales, Norway and Sweden combine, that Ane would regularly stop playing for whole sections of songs so that we might experience the nape-prickling joy of four interweaving a cappella voices, swelling and swooping across the pews. Each singer got a rapturous reception: at one point, Ane mentioned that she's tempted to just shut up and listen to them sing. Happily for us, she joins in.

What an exquisite instrument her voice is! It's a head voice, capable of almost operatic highs (the chorus of "Armour" has the prettiness of chamber music), of suddenly swelling emphases from the chest and of long sinuous melodies on a single breath ("Baby we were made of gold", that last word hovering over four bars, and the ornamented melody of "Ten Seconds" over the lines "You're just hanging around with yourself" are examples).

Brun's songs hew to the chillier minor keys, but they nearly always admit sudden shafts of radiance. The framework is provided by her guitar playing. Her technique seems tantalising simple at first: basic finger-picking over open-tunings (she only started to play guitar at 21, using tab books). And yet, from such an unadorned style, she constructs beguiling grids of sound that flicker with unexpected blues and ghostly grace notes; peculiar chords keep falling towards the tonic like a series of endlessly opening trapdoors. It's not dissimilar to José González' finger-style. But where he has the more rigid classical technique, Brun has that crucial sigh in her playing, a willingness to use the dissonant chord where needed.

She doesn't always play the guitar. The aforementioned "Armour" has Ane at the piano, banging out that song's wittily simple rhythm. One of the Diamonds takes the keys for "Don't Leave", which frees Ane to concentrate on singing this marvelous song, dropping almost to a whisper for the verses before letting rip with the "It won't do us no good" chorus (I absolutely love this verse: "I have no plan to be/anywhere else but here/or to become someone that leaves/I didn’t even know there was an exit here/darling, don’t you try/to capture me", followed by "I am here now/I’m right here by your side/I’ll lay my hand on the couch next to you/you can hold it if you would like to/it will do you good".

Brun says at one point "here's another song about heartbreak": that's her best songs in a nutshell. It's not that they're confessional songs in the mode of, say, Joni Mitchell's Blue. The identity of the Other is rarely sketched; all the songs are about an 'I' or a 'you' and employ sometimes elaborate metaphors, as well as a good measure of wit, to approach the subject of pain. "The Puzzle" is a good example. Comparing the attempt to put yourself together again to solving a jigsaw puzzle is maybe not the most dazzling metaphor ever conceived. But it's how the metaphor plays out that's so fresh: "Clearly the corners were an easy start/ that was when everyone was still helping me out/ when it was time to fill in the frames/ they left – they thought I ought/ to have gotten over you by then". That's pretty desolate in anyone's book*. Here's a more wistful version of the same emotion: "I was gonna love you till the end of all daytime/ and I was gonna keep all our secret signs and our lullabies/I was made to believe that our love would grow old/we were gonna live in a tree house and make babies/ and we were gonna bury our ex-lovers and their ghosts/baby we were made of gold" ("The Tree House Song"). It's not all Red House Painters-style wrist-slashing: "What am I going to do?/ I will drink a bottle of wine over you" is followed by the sly "for me/it is red or nothing". And how's this for meta: "My friend/ You left me in the end/ I can't believe I'm writing a song/ Where friend rhymes with end".

There are so many self-lacerating lyrics, it's enough to make you wish you were heartbroken, just so you could grap these songs to your heart like a salve. But all Northern Europeans can appreciate the yearning for yearly change in "Changing of the Seasons" (which I happen to think is her best song). An unnamed man wakes after the "the best sleep he'd ever met" with his lover. But he can't help but to wonder whether he's satisfied, whether someone else should "meet his hazy anticipating eyes". The chorus is his: "Restlessness is me/you see/it´s hard to be safe/it´s difficult to be happy". He muses that his disenchantment is linked to the seasons, "the relief of spring/intoxication of summer rain/the clearness of fall /how winter makes me reconsider it all". So far, so faintly self-pitying. What elevates the song is the final verse, where his dreams melt away: "then she awakes/reaches for the embrace/he decides not to worry about seasons again". By this point, I'm normally a warm puddle.

Although I first heard Ane's music in 2006, I've resisted writing about her before (and not just out of sheer laziness). I've never been quite sure I could describe music this intimate, this powerful without descending into purple prose of the worst kind— more love-letter than review. Also I was superstitious about letting too much light in. How idiotic. Anyway, that can't be helped now since, if the universe is a fair and just place, many more people will soon get to hear this beguiling singer, who then fall head over heels in their turn.

Come the end, after a duet with support act Teitur on "Rubber & Soul" (home to the startling lyric "In my dreams I'm on your floor/vomiting and defeated"), a brilliant new song written in America ("This is a tour song. Don't worry, there isn't a tour album next") that features the f-bomb (only sung by the Welsh singer; the rest are too nervous to sing it in a church), and a breathtaking version of "True Colours", Ane and her singers get a standing ovation; they look genuinely delighted. It won't be their last.

*With a suitably windswept video too:

All pictures courtesy of Anika in London. Thanks!


Wickerman said...

I too witnessed this amazing gig. I never got see Jeff Buckley, but if it was half this good then I would be in heaven......they all sounded like angels and the wash of the acoustic guitar and the genuine feeling that Ane has for her music and her amazing Diamonds had me speechless until I reached Highbury Station. Man that was good!!

Hipvet said...

Thankyou for a wonderful review. Unfortunately I missed the gig as I was in Spain.....a drag actually because the "Welsh singer" is my daughter in law Rachael and her voice makes me gasp. I saw her accompanying Ane a year or so back at the Borderline and it was equally good then.

Lee said...

Your daughter-in-law? How wonderful! I wonder if you'll be pleased to learn that she was the only singer to sing the F-word in the song: the Scandinavians all bottled it and then spent the rest of the song giggling. Aftewards, Ane was "ah: typical Welsh"...