Album Reviews

Nancy Elizabeth – Dancing

(The Leaf Label) UK release date: 20 May 2013

Nancy Elizabeth - Dancing

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Written on a broken piano, completely alone in a flat in Manchester, Dancing may be the least appropriate title for Nancy Elizabeth’s third album. However, while we’ll probably never hear Nancy Elizabeth Cunliffe covering Party Rock Anthem or teaming up with Calvin Harris, there is a new sensibility on display here, resulting in a more ambitious, driven and – yes, at times – danceable sound.

For Dancing, Cunliffe apparently completely immersed herself in the recording process, using computers in her music for the very first time, and basing all her songs around that faulty piano. Often multi-tracking her own voice to provide a choral arrangement, the effect on these 12 songs can often be breathtaking. Opening track The Last Battle feels like a soundtrack to a lost Godfather film, its epic scope setting the scene for what’s to follow.

What follows may come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Nancy Elizabeth’s past work. Whereas before names like James Yorkston and Joanna Newsom may have been dropped as comparisons, now there are sonic nods to the likes of PJ Harvey or Lykke Li. The single Simon Says Dance is most reminiscent of the latter, a tense, stacatto affair with an haunting piano refrain (there’s also an even better remix, sadly not available on the album, which adds synths and beats over the song to create something that would genuinely sound at home on the dancefloor).

Mostly though, it’ll be your heart that will be doing the dancing. The minimal motif of the evocatively titled Death In An Sunny Room is stunningly beautiful while Cuncliffe’s multi-tracked vocals are used to their very best effect on the outstanding Desire, which gives some hints to the heartbreak behind the album’s composition (“There’s no one I can pin my hopes on, no one underneath this sun who I expect to give me love”).

Dancing is one of those albums where the musicianship impresses almost as much as the songwriting – the intricate percussion that underpins Heart, or the ghostly, otherworldy echoes of All Mouth. Shimmering Song, meanwhile, does exactly what it says on the tin, a lovely piano line shimmering around Cunliffe’s soaring, swooping vocals. Her voice will undoubtedly be an acquired taste for some listeners (on Raven City, her attempts to hit the high notes on the chorus do prove a bit grating), but generally it proves to be her most effective instrument.

If there’s a minor quibble to be had, it could be that it all sounds a bit clean and clinical, especially given the apparently tumultuous circumstances that the album was recorded under; occasionally, as on the aforementioned Desire or Death In A Sunny Room, some real emotion is glimpsed and the effect is devastating. Yet it seems churlish to complain about such things when Dancing is certainly Nancy Elizabeth’s best work to date. Her previous two albums have seen her hover on the outskirts of the alternative folk scene. Dancing could well see her leap, if not into the mainstream exactly, then into a lot of people’s hearts.

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