Previously one of the many guitarists with the love ’em or hate ’em Bristol-based indier-than-indier band The Blue Aeroplanes, Winter has been tilting at a solo career since 2000’s Put Away The Sharp Knives.
Both that album and the follow-up Death Row Bride received plenty of interest from the independent scene, with the raw lo-fi production values and Winter’s folk-influenced songwriting proving a potent combination.
This time around Winter has teamed up with Portishead‘s Adrian Utley, an occasional collaborator on the earlier albums. Her fellow Bristolian helps create a more rounded production on Situation Normal Then, albeit one that still retains Winter’s trademark vicious bite.
The opening Midwich Sleep On rumbles by on a bed of scratchy guitar, fuzzy guitars and a tastefully deployed didgeridoo. This dark tale of village life is straight out of the murder ballad tradition, and would have fitted in quite nicely on PJ Harvey‘s To Bring You Love (the Harvey comparisons are nothing new).
The following Don’t Send Me Back To The Dark Place maintains the mood, with Winter’s able finger picking acoustic looping around rough-sounding stabs of electric guitar to create a mood of sinister tension.
The album moves into more traditional folk territory on The Ballad Of Geilie Duncan, although Winter’s faux-breathy vocals on the track sound too strained to these ears.
In fact, the album succeeds on more urgent tracks such as Turn The Main Siren On and Wolf. The former throws bagpipes and pan pipes into the mix to notable effect, while on the latter Winter sounds distinctly unhinged at moments as she spits out her lyrics against childlike woodwind and a sinister sounding squeezebox.
Elsewhere the mood is just too calculating and the performances too restrained to truly connect in the manner that was surely intended. This is a fatal flaw where songs such as Malice Damaged and Music To Self-Harm To. If you’re going to write lyrics that nakedly honest then the performances have to be spot-on. Instead, Winter ends up sounding like a sub-par Richey Edwards.
Utley should be applauded for his subtle production work throughout the album. The employment of folk and Celtic instrumentation could easily have backfired, but every track bristles with inventive touches that deepen with repeated listens.
That said, the deliciously titled Christmas Chrysanthemums somewhat loses its way with a random attack of Celtic pipes in the middle of the song. The album closes out on a more effective note with the morose Surfacing, a ballad that Winter truly nails this time around.
The spooked world of Hazel Winter will alienate some and delight others. Needless to say, this is an album that deserves repeated listens for its unique atmosphere to really grip.