The latest in the seemingly endless stream of ‘sensitive’ female singer-songwriters, Virginia MacNaughton‘s record company seem to be pitching her squarely at the Dido market. It’s easy to see why – this debut album is full of tasteful, mid-paced songs with immaculate vocals and angsty lyrics. But if the queen of coffee-table music leaves you cold, don’t fear. There’s enough evidence here that MacNaughton could well carve out a little niche of her own in time.
That said, the first impression of Levers, Pulleys & Engines aren’t inspiring. That title for instance, coupled with the sleeve photo of MacNaughton standing alone in a deserted industrial factory, gives the impression of a rather grim record. Added to that tracks with names such as Faceless and Anonymous, and you could be forgiven for thinking that this may be heavy going.
Not so, thankfully. Despite the Dido references, MacNaughton is closer to the under-rated Sarah McLachlan, with maybe a hint of kd lang. She’s got an attractive voice, and her lyrics are never less than literate and intelligent. The aforementioned Faceless is a particular standpoint, with its tale of a partner who “flies to New York while I stay at home”. There’s a quiet desperation underpinning the song, which lends her an edge to many of her contemporaries.
She’s got an ear for a tune too – the infectious Goodbye To All That is dedicated to the late Kirsty MacColl and has the same charming, acoustic bounciness as the best of Kirsty’s work. Night Into Day is also receiving some radio play, and its string laden chorus wedges in the brain nicely. The lilting Worth The Wait is also a highlight, as is Big Sky, which is reminiscent of a more restrained Gemma Hayes.
If there’s a problem with Levers Pulleys & Engines, it would be a lack of passion. Everything is beautifully performed and sung, but there’s a lack of urgency that would add a welcome edge to MacNaughton’s songwriting. Usually that doesn’t matter as the songs suit the mood perfectly, but now and again it can result in something like Or Nothing, which ends up as a bit of a dirge.
These are minor criticisms however. Overall, this is a promising debut album which deserves to receive the same exposure as Dido, but probably won’t. That’s a good thing though – you get the feeling that if MacNaughton was propelled to the stratosphere so quickly it could have a detrimental effect. If she plugs away quietly and builds up a loyal following, she’ll be around for some years to come.