Album Reviews

Rachel Goswell – Waves Are Universal

(4AD) UK release date: 7 June 2004


Rachel Goswell - Waves Are UniversalBrief history lesson, so pay attention at the back. Slowdive were part of the much-derided Brit indie scene known as ‘shoegazing’, full of effects-laden guitar shimmer that rarely look beyond its navel. Main culprits to suffer this tag were groups like Ride and The Cranes. Slowdive morphed into Mojave 3, who provide (to this day) warm, winsome country music with drifting comforting melancholy, perfect for easy sunset listening.

Rachel Goswell is the link between these two, providing shimmery seductive backing vocals (and bass with Mojave 3) to Neil Halstead‘s unhurried slow-country charmers, without bursting free into the spotlight too often, until now. Leaving the guitar peddle noodling of Slowdive, Mojave 3 is very much the blueprint here, and if you like stripped-down, mellow, introspective, strummed-out, stoned-folk, summer-achy songs then this could well be your bag, man.

Opener Warm Summer Sun sets the scene, with an atmospheric autumn angst strum set off by uillean pipes lending a celtic edge to the affairs. Themes seem to border on the repetitive of lost love, longing or an unnamed sense of despair, albeit a rather pleasant kind. Similar in vein to nu-folkies Laura Veirs, Kathryn Williams, Kristin Hersh, Beth Orton or even fellow label-mate Heidi Berry, this is drifting easy-going angst.

A folky haze envelops this collection as it reveals its unwinding pleasures over repeated listenings, worming its way into your consciousness with the beauty and seemingly effortless structure of melody and musical embellishments. Bizarre to the sublime field recordings such as a “caved Wurlitzer”, “Lostwithiel birds”, “St Merryn airfield” and a rather subdued “rain” add a barely noticeable ambience that isn’t obtrusive or mannered, just ‘nice’.

Tunes fall into two camps: the gentle acoustic, chamber-folk, (close harmonies and countrified guitars) or the turgid electric drone rock-outs of the drum tracks. Sometimes it feels like the music could simply evaporate, such is the sheer vapidity of some of the tunes that barely exist. When she does ‘rock out’ (but gently) on No Substitute or the Mazzy Star flavoured bluesy-ness of Save Yourself it is in stark relief to the blissful harmonies that practically fall out of the speakers on Gather Me Up.

It doesn’t always work, as on Coastline which meanders around on a circular strum before the swooping slide guitar figure trails off in a stoned jam that splutters to a conclusion. Perhaps the feeling was that the acoustic tracks weren’t strong enough on their own and needed the ‘beefing out’ of a ‘full band sound’. But the harsh truth is that Rachel’s voice gets lost in the production and just doesn’t suit battling against a band set on ‘stoner jam’ mode.

It is on the simpler songs, such as Shoulder The Blame that her strengths come through in their drum-free acoustic grace, allowing her vapour-like voice to reach out unaffected and touching on the beautiful. Sleepless in Tooting closes the affair from her earlier Sleep Shelter EP on a smiley upbeat Hammond organ note.

The only downfalls of the whole project, are the rather vague, impressionistic lyrics, alluding to a coolly detached sense of loss, without any memorable images of bite and conviction, or sense of her own experience colouring the palette. But when they are couched in such hazy lazy acoustic warmth it is hard to resist their draw. An occasionally flawed, if rather charming, debut that hints at a beauty waiting to unfurl.


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More on Rachel Goswell
Rachel Goswell @ Water Rats, London
Rachel Goswell – Waves Are Universal