After listening to A Box Painted Black, it comes as little surprise that Paper Dollhouse (aka Astrud Steehouder) is named after a cult ’80s horror film. The picture in question, Paperhouse, was a twisted fantasy based on a little girl from a dysfunctional family whose drawings came to life in her dreams. It was bleak and creepy, filled with an imagination gone wild.
This is a similar project, dark, minimal and lo-fi folk with electronic accompaniment. Like Bon Iver in a wood cabin, Steehouder recorded the album in her kitchen and garden with little care for polished sounding tracks and more emphasis on atmospherics. There is background noise and virtually no polishing to it which adds to the sense of a recording which puts ephemera over radio friendliness and you need to use your brain to put the sounds and images together.
It begins with 40 seconds of a tinkling music box before evolving into Did You Wake, which ironically is so pared down and hushed that it could easily lull the listener off into a slumber, with Steehouder’s vocals barely audible. It sounds like it’s barely there, almost as if someone stumbled across someone playing in a room and turned a tape on and sets the scene for what’s to come.
Her folk sensibilities become apparent on tracks like Daisies and The Town, the former is as close to jaunty as Steehouder gets, bouncing along its urgent guitar riff and she sings “you cannot keep me down today”. The latter is more in keeping with the Paper Dollhouse aesthetic, broody, haunted Steehouder explains “I know, it’s your town now”, whilst what sounds like a running tap underpins minor chords. These two tracks are probably the best examples of what A Box Painted Black tries to do – stripped down, almost awkward and dark folk which either conjures up images of desolation or leaves the listener scrabbling for a hook depending on how much they invest in it.
Steehouder has explained that she is influenced by television soundtracks, presumably those of dark British psychological thrillers rather than soap operas. It’s evident on tracks like Icestorm and Moon that she may have done just as well in the BBC audio studio as she has in her own house. Both have no vocals and are more backing tracks than the work of a singer songwriter. They evoke that sinister moment in a drama when the protagonist is driving across a bleak landscape, wracked with self doubt or before some truly shocking revelation. It’s a dramatic description, but in order to understand Paper Dollhouse properly, you do need to use your imagination a bit.
Moon unsurprisingly sounds quite otherworldly; a jangling guitar adding some suspense to what is the last track of an album that feels like it ends prematurely after just 30 minutes.
It will be apparent from the first listen that A Box Painted Black isn’t the kind of album that you might put on to do your Christmas exercise DVD to. It’s melancholic, broody and dark and has little production to make it easier to listen to or to drag out tunes from its tracks. It also feels somewhat incomplete, with some clever, intricate and interesting ideas but not the sense of a finished work with an overall message.
But if, like Astrud Steehouder, you have an imagination that enjoys playing with dark images, and enjoy music that requires needs attentio to bring it to life, there is plenty to Paper Dollhouse that you can draw on.