When someone creates an imprint especially for your release, said release must be fairly good. And so Shannon Lay’s ‘Living Water’ came out on Kevin Morby’s imprint in 2017. Now signed to Sub Pop, Lay hones her quietly confident sound and moves towards a new directness on ‘August’, its title a reference to the month she packed in the day job.
Being able to devote herself to music allows Lay to explore two not exactly congruent styles: scuzzy garage-punk as part of LA four-piece Feels (she’s their guitarist) and here, tender psychy folk-pop.
‘Death Up Close’ is the centrepiece of the album. Lay sounds as if she’s right next to you, everything closely mic’d, before Mikal Cronin’s saxophone riff enters and tips the balance. The song proceeds to split, now cloaked in reverb and some snazzy strings.
It’s a blueprint for what’s to come: her songs mostly begin in skeletal form and are embellished and built up subtly, as in the percussion on ‘Wild’ and the wistful harmonies on ‘Something On Your Mind’. This time around Lay recorded with Ty Segall, as well as being part of his Freedom Band and featured on a track of his.
Often, it’s hard to tell if she belongs to the old or the new, and it’s when she wavers and veers towards the old-timey that she’s less successful. ‘August’ is best at its most meditative, even if its gravity belies a certain goofiness – the unsettling video for ‘Death Up Close’, for example, is a reconstruction of the Simpsons’ house.
On the chorus of ‘Unconditional’ Lay hurries up the stave, pushing her voice to match her already deft guitar work, and there are shades of early Angel Olsen, while other reference points might include Vashti Bunyan (whom she brings to mind on ‘November’, as she sings “Summmmer rain”) and Jessica Pratt, who inspired Lay to go down the solo route and whose career has followed a very similar trajectory.
It’s less Nick Drake-y than Lay’s last effort, and it feels more self-assured and hopeful. While the cover of that previous record looks like a painting that could easily have been titled ‘Melancholy’ - her head buried in her hands - ‘August’ sees her looking straight ahead, musically too.
Words: Wilf Skinner
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