All of a sudden there are more Australian female singer-songwriters than there are TV soaps from Down Under and most of them are high quality. The artists, that is, not ‘Home and Away’. One of those who have joined the fray is Olivia Jayne Bartley, or Olympia as she is known, who unlike Kylie, Delta Goodrem, Natalie Imbruglia and Holly Valance has never starred in a soap, at least not yet, and who released her second album, ‘Flamingo’ on 5th July (EMI/Universal Music Australia). Bartley co-produced it with Burke Reid, who has also worked with Courtney Barnett.
I had an idea what to expect from this album having caught part of her set in support of Julia Jacklin In Manchester back in March. (Apparently she’s also supported Anna Calvi recently in Australia, which does her no harm at all in my book). Some of her songs, and the way she delivers them on stage, occasionally wielding her guitar around and shredding for all she’s worth, suggest there’s something of St Vincent in her but for the most part it’s illusory. While some of her lyrics approach the depth you expect from Annie Clark, and while she is an indie-art-pop artist too, Olympia ruminates in this album over the hopes and desires familiar to the student age audience she attracts, and within the context of an addiction-related personal tragedy, rather than about what murdered black activist Huey Newton said to her in a dream in a Tokyo hotel room. Something that far more people can actually relate to.
The album opens with an aspirational rocker, ‘Star City’, Olympia’s powerful, high voice varying from mezzo soprano to soprano, a regular feature throughout the album. The strong melody carries an anthem – one of several on this album – which could have closed the record instead and it might be Belinda Carlisle singing here. It is, though, possibly a little over-produced; the lyrical content is lost in a maelstrom of instruments.
‘Come back’ features that vocal variation again and is more keyboard/bass led. But it’s a plodder by comparison, lacking melody.
She gets back on track with ‘Easy Pleasure’; again bass and keyboards’ influenced but with a languorous chorus that slowly but surely nestles in your consciousness along with her repeated Sheryl Crow-like entreaty to “lay it down on me”.
‘Nervous Riders’ in which she uses a stripped back vocal to emphasise the disappointment of being let down is an excellent track, or rather it would be if it went on for another fifteen seconds. Her voice is so clear that it might have been recorded in a different studio altogether with Tony Visconti and Trevor Horn at the mixing desk. Again, with a potent tune supporting it, it builds steadily on an insistent drum beat toward a climax but then unaccountably stops when it’s still got another chorus in it. Imagine ‘Bridge over Troubled Water’ without the last verse. That’s probably an analogy too far but you get the idea.
‘Hounds’ by comparison has a weaker melody and it’s three minutes and 40 seconds of an unvarying, pounding 4/4 beat. But lyrically it is quite profound, as a disillusioned Olympia attempts to capture something she can’t even identify, something that’s somewhere over the rainbow to borrow from a more famous song. At the same time her other half daydreams of “leaving for something better”. The sentiment is very similar to that of Sløtface in their new single ‘Telepathetic’ in which Haley O’Shea berates and sneers at her partner for his indolence. But they are both fashioned from the same mould as the closing lines of ‘Hounds’ – “It never ends/we’re stories without ending/and I’m still wishing you would stay” – reveal.
She slows the pace right down in ‘Won’t say that’ and emotes profoundly on what is an outright love song to the object of that aforementioned personal tragedy, accompanied by a gently strummed guitar. It’s followed by a rocker, ‘Two Hands’. She isn’t frightened to mix it up.
‘Shoot to forget’ is the most dynamic track on the album and the most intriguingly melodic and catchy with the verse lines rising in a similar way to what young Australians do when they turn a declarative statement into a question, to the fury of their elders. It also gives fuller rein to her vocals, which are notably rich here. There’s a distinct flavour of 1980’s U.S. new wave too, and I’m thinking in particular of Sleater Kinney.
From the first few bars of ‘First you leave’ we’re transported into one of those rare occasions where she’s sharing the same space as St Vincent, circa the eponymously-named Clark album. A sad, languid affair matched by a poignant vocal; one of the few times on the album on which she seemingly abandons hope for despair.
The title track comes as the penultimate one. I’ve listened to it a couple of times but can’t work out the reference. She’s speaking of another person, who keeps moving around and “walks into a drain and disappears”. As you do. Flamingos are multi-coloured. Are they peripatetic? And they stand on one leg. Perhaps she’s going to do that when she performs it live, or be chased out of a kitchen by one in the next JackpotJoy advert. Seriously, I think the clue is in the colouring and how these experiences have coloured her life. Sorry, that’s the best I can offer. Nice song though and another which lets her use a fuller vocal range.
‘Wrong number’ is a disappointment musically when you think about what a great opening song ‘Star City’ is although the lyrics again have a poignancy about them as presumably the object of the album “keeps running to his burning house”.
There are three or four outstanding tracks on this album and the others are merely good or very good. And yet…
She has great originality, the talent is there but you get the impression she’ll realise her full potential on the next album rather than on this one. This was the ‘difficult second album’ and owing to the nature of its content, an intensely personal one to boot. But it wasn’t so hard was it, Olivia?
She returns to these shores on July 20th, visiting the Latitude Festival, London and Manchester, then returning to Brighton in September. Having picked up some national radio support from the Jacklin tour, as Fred Pontin used to say, Book Early!