Nadine Khouri

Nadine Khouri – The Salted Air (One Flash Records)

British-Lebanese singer-songwriter Nadine Khouri has been biding her time. Her 2010 EP A Song to the City caused a minor stir, not least for its stately production from long-time PJ Harvey right hand man John Parish. The partnership has remained intact for this eventual debut album, with Khouri’s gentle touch suitably unobstructed by Parish’s unfussy controls.

At The Salted Air’s best moments, they are able to conjure passages of genuine stirring beauty. On the title track, for instance, the sparseness of the finger-plucked guitars and Khouri’s whispered vocals work together delicately enough that you feel the need to hold your breath so as not to ruin the moment. It is not merely a pretty arrangement, but an occasion for pause and reflection.

The same can be said of ‘Broken Star’, which features a Moroccan tar to add an unpredicted flavour. “I prayed so hard my heart was a tattoo of light,” sings Khouri, and the production allows you time to mull it over. At such highlights, she calls to mind the luscious music of Hope Sandoval & The Warm Inventions or Julee Cruise, comparisons to which so many aspire but with which far fewer succeed.

The problem, however, is that these standouts do not dominate the album. It is a record relatively low on thrills, with the pace rarely spiking. On the few moments that an injection of energy arrives, it falls strangely flat. The track ‘Shake It Like A Shaman’ is no better than its title suggests: supposedly, it is a tribute to one of Khouri’s heroes, Jeff Buckley, but in reality is little more than a spoken word piece over a basic, clattering rhythm. It lacks entirely the vocal, production or compositional astonishment of Buckley’s work, making the comparison a hindrance rather than a boost.

Elsewhere, opening track ‘Thru You I Awaken’ starts with an intriguingly long a capella section before swells of eerie harmonium fill the void. It is one of the more striking and appetite-whetting entries into a debut album, but the mystery is not maintained into second track ‘I Ran Thru The Dark (To The Beat Of My Heart)’. Instead, we get fairly standard acoustic guitar and a sweet but subdued lead vocal. The recurring themes of loss and the stress of life changes are handled earnestly and efficiently, but rarely enigmatic or revelatory enough to linger long in the listener’s mind.

Many will find solace in the moments here that generate moments of stunned stillness, which has become a commodity more precious than gold in our frighteningly fast-paced world. Those few tracks at the centre of this record are arresting because they contain the shock of the different, which the surrounding portions sadly lack. Khouri and Parish have made a clear and admirable decision to ensure that there is always space in these songs, but that alone is not enough to sustain intrigue. There can be no doubt about the talent of Nadine Khouri, but her classic album still lies ahead.

The Salted Air is out now on One Flash Records.

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