Her first new album in a decade (Lemon, Staring and Find are being remastered for a 2020 reissue), during which time she built her own studio, completed a PhD in Music Production and Gender and published Women In The Studio: Creativity, Control and Gender In Popular Music Sound Production, White Dots finds the Dublin born multi-hyphenate in excellent form with a cocktail of pop, folksy, jazz and stage musicals. At times vocally echoing Kate Bush, she crafts story-led songs that have seen her likened to Carole King and Nora Jones though I’m more inclined to line her with Ray Davies and Vinny Peculiar in the way she channels observations, both wryly humorous and pointedly serious, into her lyrics to capture a perspective that I’ve previously described as akin to Mike Leigh. Many feel like play scripts in waiting.
Interpolating the refrain from The Hollies’ ‘Jennifer Eccles’, her new collection kicks off with the light, upbeat ‘Cherrington Road’, an early childhood memory of “Sitting on a swing, singing up to the sky”, her mother in the kitchen boiling potatoes, prompting a song (the lyrics more accurately a poem) about how children carry the memories of their parents and that “when it comes to the end all you’ve got is where you came from”, reflecting how there is “No child/when I’m gone to pass on to her own” and with “No child to remember my smell, to retell the tales I had to tell” she turns them into words and a tune “like a prisoner scratching obscenities on a prison wall”. Evocative of perhaps Laurie Lee in its reminiscences of an idyllic childhood, it talks about her and her mother dancing to Engelbert Humperdinck and of her father cycling home from work, asking if they watched Andy Pandy before repeating the lament.
The intro nodding to The Jam’s ‘That’s Entertainment’, second up is ‘Georgia Blue’, a song inspired by a train journey taken to London to interview Florence and the Machine’s Isabella Summers while researching her book. Her return trip was delayed when the driver didn’t turn up, Wolfe transmuting the experience into the story of Joseph, a cross-dressing train driver who, overcome by the mundanity of English greyness, decides instead to dress up the nines and remember “what it’s like to feel beautiful/What it feels like to light up a room, to take some glamour from the gloom”.
‘Follow’ follows, a rumbling rhythm and programming nagging behind the piano and strings on a song about getting away from it all, “pain all packed up in a rucksack… Things I don’t need I leave behind in the van”, walking in the isolation of the mountains and sketching the dynamics of a supportive relationship in the simple lines “I steam ahead, you still lead/I follow …As the days unfold and my story is told, you listen, you lead. I follow”.
Relationships unravelling inform several numbers. Featuring flute, sax and strings, ‘Traces’ begins with “You tell me conspiratorially about your latest affair, with no mention or care for her” and how she’s “the foil to avoid, your just-in-case date” to distract any suspicions on the part of the lover’s partner, ending with “Arrogance sublime,you suggest he’s more my kind”, while on ‘Bonnie’, although she’s “longed a lifetime not to feel I have to leave”, the narrator brings a wilted love affair to a close because “I can’t keep you in my heart when we are apart/no memory of tender love to hold me in the dark”.
In contrast, ‘It Could Be’ offers a vignette of a lonely bachelor looking for love, logging on to a dating site hoping for “a message to lighten the day”, finding none “but he’ll make the best of things anyway”, Wolfe capturing the quintessence of the singleton in a world of others relationships as she sings “He’s so understanding when friends don’t call/he knows it gets harder for them to fit him in when they’ve got kids” and yet remains optimistic (“I’ve got this far and I’ve still got hair”) that maybe love might yet be out here, perhaps meeting another lonely soul “looking for love as you walk down the aisle of the supermarket, Sunday morning shopping for one”. After all, as the semi-spoken ‘Magic’ puts it, after you’ve thrown it all away and realised what loss can bring, “Just when you think that good enough really is good enough, something fresh and new comes”.
Returning to storytelling, ‘Caravan Man’ again transforms real experience, here someone she saw on a French campsite, into a portrait of an outsider “sitting by your caravan all day” watching passing travellers “pegging out their lives in tidy piles”as she wonders who he is and what he’s waiting for.
Likewise, spanning France and Mexico City, featuring piano, simple strummed guitar and warm trumpet, ‘Paris Metro paints a picture of two buskers from South America playing their brass instruments outside the station on a Sunday morning while a world away “the night is lit up by flames of fire blown from the mouth of a boy while his friend tries to clean the taxi driver’s windscreen”, musing, as a musician and performer, on how “there’s not a lot between us”.
Returning to break-ups, the Randy Newmanesque title track brings the album to a close in crushing despair, the white dots the stains of tears dried on her glasses as the woman sits heartbroken in the car park after her unfaithful lover’s lies killed “whatever love lingered still” in a hotel room “Lying to my face about your affair, crying at the thought of my leaving you there in the house meant to be the start of all our dreams”.
But, while the songs speak of sadness and loss, of isolation and loneliness, moments lost or never seized, ultimately White Dots is suffused with elements of hope and affirmation, most firmly embedded in the bossa nova inclined and its declaration of undying love. Like Joseph, Wolfe offers rays of light beyond the darkness, and with her songs, her children, she’s “gonna paint these grey skies red”.
Artist’s website: www.paulawolfe.co.uk
‘When’ – live: