Americana is a single word that encompasses so much. It’s not really a genre, but a collection of genres, covering the various traditions and influences that make up American roots music. On that basis, it’s fair to describe Somerset duo Ma Polaine’s Great Decline as true Americana. They might not be American, but both Beth Packer and Clinton Hough have grown up steeped in these traditions. It’s only natural then that their fourth album, Molecules, blends folk, blues, jazz, country, pop, and more.
Guitarist Clinton Hough saw Muddy Waters live while still wearing nappies, and later experienced many jazz greats at Ronnie’s Scott’s Club. Singer and harmonica player Beth Packer began singing in a folk club at a young age. She later imbibed jazz and blues from her father’s large record collection. Beth also began songwriting early and has written all the songs on this album. The thoughtful and intelligent lyrics are generally melancholic, but not tragic and with some lightness. They don’t deal with great issues, but the trials and disappointments of everyday life. That’s not the end of Beth’s talents though, because she also provided the very imaginative artwork on the disc and sleeve. Each song has its own symbol, while the main picture features molecules and a puffer fish – of which more later.
Beth and Clinton wanted Molecules to have the atmosphere of their live performances, so the album was recorded as live, over three days at the Bert Jansch Studio in Frome. A rhythm section, consisting of two musician friends – Nik Pini (Laura Marling) on bass and Jimmy Norden (P J Harvey) on drums – provide excellent support.
Lines in the opening song, ‘Jars,’ explain the presence of the pufferfish; “I’m the pufferfish, And I don’t intend to age too gracefully”. The gentle, country tune accompanies lyrics in which the narrator tries to hold on to a relationship that is losing its meaning. The pain that relationships can bring also features in the second track, ‘River.’ After a dreamy opening, a strong and rhythmic tune, with some jazz influence, develops. On this track, we really hear Beth’s impressive vocal range for the first time.
The lively folk pop tune of ‘Back When You Loved Me’ includes a nice electric guitar solo from Clinton. ‘Alone’ has a similarly lively tempo, this time with a country vibe, enhanced by Beth’s harmonica. The lyrics of ‘Alone’ create a compelling picture of feeling isolated, even among other people:
Standing in a room full of people all,
Singing along, along, along,
Telling me I should know this song.
‘Say Goodbye,’ has a sombre opening before developing into a livelier tune with a hint of defiance. That’s appropriate to the lyrics, because the narrator here is trying to end a troubled relationship, asking why their partner won’t do what the title says. The country feel of the tune is enhanced by some good slide guitar playing.
Blues and jazz influences dominate on ‘Audrey.’ With its strong tune, infectious rhythm, and solid bassline, this is, for me, the standout track on Molecules. The Audrey of the title dreams of finding true love, but it isn’t working out. The lyrics urge her to take control of her life and to realise, “You don’t need no man to bring you down.” ‘Audrey’ has an upbeat tune and holds hope that there is a way forward to a better life. In contrast, ‘Purple,’ another song about an unhappy relationship, has a gentler tune and an air of hopelessness. It’s a nice track though, with intricate guitar accompaniment.
‘The Angry One’ has a laconic, old timey tune that doesn’t sound angry. The lyrics make up for that though; “Now I’m the crazy one, Ripping you into oblivion, I’m the angry one.’ This angry defiance contrasts with ‘Blame it on Me,’ where the narrator is being blamed for the unhappy and damaging relationship, they find themselves in. The bluesy tune is suitably sombre.
Throughout Molecules, there has been light and darkness, with the melancholy periodically relieved by hints of optimism. The title track aims conclude the album by drawing its themes together. The sadder side comes first.
We’re just molecules and blood
An insignificant part of the Universe
A gram of salt in the sea
A speck in infinity
That might be depressing, but the message of the song seems to be that we’re here and we can make the best of things, without worrying our insignificance. The album ends on that comforting note.
This is a good album, from a talented duo. Clinton is clearly a very fine guitarist but, for me, it’s Beth’s vocals that stand out and take their music to a higher level. Her range is impressive and her voice is very listenable, with an emotional connection with the material that draws the listener in.
Listening to Molecules – with its combination of intelligent, well-crafted songs and fine musicianship – it’s easy to understand why Ma Polaine’s Great Decline’s reputation has been on the rise for some time. Radio appearances have followed, including the Radio 2 Blues Show, presented by one of their fans, Cerys Matthews. Molecules explores difficult subjects; the disappointments of life, the fragility of relationships, our need for companionship despite the anguish this can cause, the pain we manage to inflict on each other. Despite that, there is enough light and defiance in the face of life’s trials to avoid it becoming a counsel of despair. It’s a gentle and thoughtful album that quietly engages the listener. Ma Polaine’s Great Decline have gathered plenty of awards and plaudits in the last few years. With this album, more should be on their way.
Artist website: www.mapolainsgreatdecline.com
‘Molecules’ – official video: