In what is, unquestionably, her finest solo work to date, Annie Gallup, one half of Hat Check Girl, has crafted an intimate, conceptual storytelling album about the past, mortality and the power and value of memory. Her musical and personal partner, Peter Gallway, contributes bass and keys, but otherwise this is all down to Gallup who plays the guitars, ukulele and lapsteel that make up the spare instrumentation. A poet and theatrical writer/performer as well as a songwriter, she often adopts a spoken approach to her work that prompts comparison with Laurie Anderson, notably so here on the beat poetry influenced ‘All The Money In The World’ and the vocally double-tracked hushed and confessionally delivered ‘Being Her Child’ on which a girl seeks to trace herself and her own identity in memories and photographs of her late mother, a theme to which she returns on ‘Understudy’.
It opens on ‘Paper’, which, in less than two minutes, sketches an image of fragility and emotional vulnerability (“Strike a match, I curl to ash in the kitchen sink”) yet also subtly conjures anger at an unreliable lover as she describes a chain of cut-out figures “joined at the fist a string of dolls each like the other girls you kissed.”
Featuring keening lapsteel, ‘Loyalty’ both illustrates her ability to weave an enchanting melody out of a minimal setting and to immediately draw you into her narrative, a reflective tale of perhaps misguided youthful allegiance (“I was hard to shake”) to those undeserving of it in the need to feel wanted, opening with the conversational “Back when we were friends she had a lover who was once an extra in a Woody Allen film, it might have been Manhattan. I never got to meet him. He was swept away. That was exhibit A of how she inspired passion. Exhibit B changed frequently, C was mythical and she was an unreliable narrator” as she goes on to talk of “the familiar ache of intoxicating cruelty” and of how “I was still terrified by everything I wanted.”
Her stories range freely, in ‘Bluebird’ the narrator is a WWII veteran who, following in his father’s footsteps, who fought at Amiens, recalls being injured at Normandy when his parachute snagged a tree, leaving him to “hang there helplessly with a shattered chest.” Whereas, ‘Strange Boy’ charts a doomed relationship with the oddball, lonely kid who grows up to become the singer’s commitment phobic cynical and unromantic (“I gave him a poem for a Valentine. He wrote suggestions and corrections in the margins”) lover and eventually a stranger who “stayed up all night to watch me sleep” but “was gone at dawn”, leaving behind, in an image linking back to the opening track, “a fleet of paper airplanes” which “had crashed into the sheets.”
Only one track exceeds the four minute mark, and yet Gallup packs in as much compelling narrative as a short story. The musically spooked, spoken ‘Coyote Highway’ is a case in point, a heartrending tale of a couple discovering, on her birthday, that he has a terminal illness, making the most of the remaining time together (described in mundane but moving imagery) that ends on an ominous note as, hearing the coyote’s that haunt the area, she wonders “Are they getting closer?”
Before this becomes more of a literary essay than a review, let me just also direct you to the woozily dreamy, self-explanatory titled ‘Il Ne M’aimera Jamais (He Will Never Love Me)’ with a melody that evokes Civil War era folk and the plucked guitar album closer ‘Luminary’ with its wondering what might happen when old flames, meet again somewhere down the line, one having found fame, the other not.
More particularly, you owe it to yourself to listen to the album’s two 24-carat diamonds, the simply titled ‘Story’, a spoken four minute novella about a nine-year-old American boy who, his father dying on a quest to find a missing uncle in the slums of Lagos, happily becomes one of the streetkids until, finally found and returned to his mother in New York, now grown and pondering the existential questions “Who would he be if he had lived? Who would I be if I hadn’t been found?”
And, of course, the quite magnificent title track as, backed by wheezing keyboards, the narrator’s lost in reverie of the father who left home before she was born but remained in her life, his house “full of strangers playing tune after tune”, their times together “Poor in existential angst and solitude. Rich in mosquito bites, moths around the porch light… Poor in long distance calls and cruises. Rich in homegrown tomatoes and river rocks.” And in a final line that transcends sentimentality to strike deep into memories of a life richly lived and loved, “Poor in pedigree and regrets.” A sublime work of profound emotion and evocative poetry enfolded in simple but intoxicating melodies it’s one of the finest releases this year; now, how about a novel?
Artist’s website: www.anniegallup.com