I don’t usually get to review this kind of record, mostly because I’m not sure what kind of record this is. Ma Polaine’s Great Decline are a duo, Beth Packer and Clinton Hough, and The Outsider is their second album. Apart from Pete Flood’s drums on four tracks, Beth and Clinton play all the instruments, mostly sparsely arranged. There are influences from inter-war jazz and blues but if you told me that these songs were all Tom Waits’ originals that he hadn’t got round to recording yet, I’d believe you. I’m not the first to draw such a comparison.
If you’ve ever felt that the whole world is cross-threaded, The Outsider is your kind of record. Its protagonists have jumped a groove or two in one way or another, from the ‘Little Lady’ who society fails to notice to the protagonists of what is described as a murder ballad, one of whom is a mermaid. The opener, ‘Carousel’, is relatively conventional love song is waltz time but for the most part Beth’s lyrics are deliberately opaque. You can search for clues so the line “run me right out of town” suggests a meaning that the title ‘Monster Swan Blues’ does not and the song’s meaning becomes clear – actually, it’s not so difficult.
The key sound is Clinton’s electric guitar, often very sparse but building in intensity in the right places like the sinister ‘Can’t Have You’. Beth plays double bass, piano, accordion, harmonica and percussion building textures beneath her vocals. Clinton switches to acoustic guitar for the simple and rather disturbing ‘The Poison Sits’ and adds an electric solo before the last verse and adds it to that accordion for that final stanza.
Twice through and I’m really liking The Outsider. It’s a record enhanced by a certain mood, a certain ambience – sitting in a cheap hotel room with a bottle of whisky in your hand and the neon from the strip joint across the street flashing through the cracked window – but it will play well anywhere you happen to be.
Artists’ website: www.mapolainesgreatdecline.com