Liz Green’s startlingly accomplished debut album, O, Devotion!, won widespread acclaim as one of the best debuts of 2011. Several years in the making following her initial emergence as the winner of the Glastonbury Emerging Talent Competition four years before, its bewitching, hard to pigeonhole north-west England brew of blues, folk and French chanson heralded the arrival of a major new artist. Sadly, few members of the record buying public agreed, and O, Devotion! came and went with barely a ripple of interest.
Haul Away!, as well as continuing the Wirral-born, Manchester-based Ms Green’s liking for exclamation marks in her record titles, also sees her songwriting style by and large carrying on from where O’ Devotion left off. Her compositions remain suffused by a glass half empty sense of dysfunction, failure and futility, with themes ranging from love gone wrong to death and betrayal, peppered with intriguing references to Greek mythology and traditional folk tales.
Musically, while O, Devotion! was, for all its other diverse elements, first and foremost an acoustic guitar led record, Haul Away! sees the piano taking centre stage as the dominant instrument on many songs. Those who felt the gorgeous French Singer was an absolute highlight of Green’s debut will be equally beguiled by Haul Away!’s Into My Arms, a ballad that’s simultaneously both beautifully lilting and quietly desperate, as Green implores “so come over, come over my dear, I’m pulling you in/you’re wearing me out and this habit is wearing you thin”.
Elsewhere, the piano is deployed in a number of equally effective ways, whether it’s the rambunctious ragtime tempo of the title track, the slow, deliberate waltz of The River Runs Deep or duetting with a mournful cello on the lyrical, elegant instrumental Little I. Green’s subject matter may be as stark as ever, but Haul Away! does have a slightly fuller, warmer and less claustrophobic sound than it’s predecessor, with more varied arrangements using many of the same core components, notably brass and woodwind. It remains a uniquely intoxicating sound; timeless yet also somehow boldly contemporary in a similar way to the warped vaudeville of Franks Wild Years and Rain Dogs-era Tom Waits.
Those still hankering after Green at her most bleak and sparse will not be left disappointed either. Opening track Battle kicks off Haul Away! with a skeletal banjo riff seemingly transported from 19th century Appalachians, the sole accompaniment to Green’s anguished, haunting vocal.
And ah, that voice. Like a Merseyside Billie Holiday, it exudes bitterness, hurt and experience with an authenticity rarely heard in modern singers, with a richness of tone and expression that puts most of her more successful contemporaries to shame. It’s in outstanding shape throughout Haul Away! but perhaps at it’s most powerful in more unadorned settings, such as Battle and the hypnotic Penelope, on which Green reaches a hushed crescendo with a series of pained sighs, backed by a gently fluttering saxophone.
Recorded live at London’s Toe Rag studios on vintage tape machines, everything about Haul Away! feels lovingly crafted but also very natural, with the songs flowing effortlessly and at their own stately, patient pace. In many respects, Green’s music feels like it belongs to an era much earlier than the 21st century. Yet in a modern industry that can often seem to be dominated by formulaic performers, Liz Green remains highly relevant as that rare exception. A true original.