Stream: Felix – “Oh Thee 73”
There are lyrics, but then there is poetry. Where the line is drawn can sometimes be hard to tell, and that’s usually because an artist has managed to turn their words into something that sounds like it was meant to be sung. Justin Vernon comes to mind, especially with regard to the lyrics on last year’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver: before the album was officially released he posted all the lyrics online. This not only gave us an interesting way to consider the album before hearing it, it also showed how wonderful and wistful Vernon’s way with words is. Yet a line like “I could see for miles, miles, miles” rung out (like that bike bell), as it seemed to perfectly capture that sense of breathlessness one gets when confronted with an enormously beautiful view. It’s a foolish sentiment, but when the line is sung, and the music settles peacefully to its cadence, it feels like poetry in motion.
Moments like that don’t happen too often in music. If a line is memorable or catchy, it’s usually because it’s sentimental or witty, which is fine. But what Vernon captured was a phrase that was relatable, simple, and soaked in the right amount of mystery. There was also the way he sung it like he was having an epiphany, but was remaining entirely calm about it.
Lucinda Chua of British trio Felix doesn’t really have her own distinct “Holecene” moment, but the way she dances around her words has me questioning where the line between casual lyricism and poetry might be drawn. Recalling English folk singer Kate Stables of This Is The Kit (with just a hint of Joanna Newsom), she puts emphasis on seemingly insignificant phrases and adds weight to them, or makes them seem fuller of colour. On “Practising Magic” she goes from whispering the song’s title to unfurling her calmed excitement during a line like “And now for my last trick/ A flock of white doves/ And a dozen white rabbits.” She’s delicate when she wants to be, and often she sounds like she’s singing in real time, like she’s remembering each image and reacting to it there in front of the microphone. On “Hate Song” she recalls a friend who gets drunk and recalls how they’ll proclaim they are “the wittiest one, and the cleverest one,” biting her tongue when singing the words “wittiest” and “cleverest.” Had the song’s title not made it so obvious, it’d be hard to mistake her feelings towards the song’s subject just by considering her tone.
For the majority of the time it’s not too hard to take a stab at what Chua might be singing about, but she weaves in plenty of poetic imagery that keeps you on your feet. Often she’ll throw in wonderful phrases like “Wading through the air as thick as milk,” but her weakness lies in when she relies too much on a single phrase, and repeats it to the effect that feels like it’s passing time rather than painting a picture. On “Don’t Look Back (It’s Too Sad)” she puts her weight on the phrase “You don’t know what love is,” almost like she’s firing her words at the listener, while on the title track she continually refers to waking “from a dream where your teeth are gone,” but the repetition reveals nothing more than the fact that Chua must not sleep too well.
Musically things are kept relatively simple, which is probably all the more beneficial for Chua and her words, not allowing anything to get in the way. The majority of the time we’re treated to her performing by herself on her piano – ranging from thoughtful balladry (“Practising Magic,” “Blessing Part II”) to jazz-inspired flourishes (the “Take Five”–esque “Don’t Look Back,” the piano ripples on “Oh Holy Molar”) — but there’s a healthy and welcome mix of drums, guitar and occasional live strings to make the fact that band are a trio worth mentioning. The jazz comparison is also somewhat apt for guitarist Chris Summerlin’s role on the album, recalling the work of Jim Hall when he was with Bill Evans, albeit more subdued and in the background. The drumming of Neil Turpin, though — a newly added member — really helps Chua’s piano and words along, working carefully to drive the songs but never distracting, despite being relatively up front in the mix.
It’s Chua’s show though, which is no bad thing since she’s an engaging personality to listen to. While her poetically-infused lyrics are intriguing, it’s her delivery that’s the selling point on Oh Holy Molar. Only occasionally does she struggle to make the journey interesting: the relatively uneventful “Rites” and “Who Will Pity The Poor Folk?”–which, unfortunately, are coupled together on the latter half of the album–make for a moment where the whole thing can feel like it’s falling into some sticky mud. But the final trio of songs bring things back to better grounds with a dose of cynicism on “Pretty Girls” and the Essie Jain lulling pace of “Practising Magic” and “Little Biscuit.” Oh Holy Molar isn’t quite poetry in motion, but not all poetry needs to be in such a state to be enjoyed.