The market for sensitive female singer-songwriters has become increasingly crowded of late. The all-conquering figure of Dido heads the field of course, and it seems every month throws up a new pretender to her crown.
Paula Wolfe is the latest entry into this field, and her debut album Staring is a true solo effort given that she played every instrument, wrote every song and self-produced the album. She’s had a chequered history, being born in Ireland, raised in London and paying her musical dues in Manchester. She was also the singer in a punk-folk group but Staring sees her travel a more sedate path.
She’s relocated back down in London now but the first thing you notice about Wolfe is her very Northern sensibility. It’s unusual to hear someone singing in an English accent and Wolfe pulls it off. However, this means that she has a habit of enunciating each and every word – while the listener isn’t scrambling for the lyric book it does become quite grating by about half an hour into the album.
Musically though, Staring is hard to fault. The opening track Walk Away combines swooning strings and a lovely strummed acoustic guitar to dreamy effect. The title track follows and is probably the best song on the album. Wolfe employs a part sung, part spoken word approach to the verse before sliding deliciously into the chorus. In parts it’s reminiscent of early Suzanne Vega, having similar intelligent, literate lyrics.
Lyrically, Wolfe has a talent for portraying characters and situations with the eye of a screenwriter. Oldham Street describes a rather bleak night in Manchester only ending when she falls back into her lover’s bed. Similarly, Leanne gets into the mind of an emotionally scarred child (“Leanne hides her head in her jumper when she’s sad”) while West Side empathises with bored children who have been neglected by their parents.
If there’s a problem here it’s that it all becomes a bit twee at times. Most of the songs use the same strings / acoustic guitar backing and as mentioned above Wolfe’s voice does start to become wearing after a few tracks. It’s a minor flaw really, as it’s nothing that some variety on future albums wouldn’t cure, but it does have a detrimental effect on this record.
You need something a bit different to stand out from the rest of the crowd with this type of music. Wolfe does enough to suggest she could become a major talent, but maybe not with this album. Staring definitely marks her out as a name to watch though.