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Sculptor (Mistletone)

This is partly a review and partly a request for assistance. For me that is, not for the duo of Zoe Randell (voice and guitar) and Steve Hassett (a whole lot of other instruments, and voice) who have been Luluc for a decade in Melbourne and Brooklyn, now have three albums, and are doing pretty well.

That success is in fact the issue. One I’ve pondered, again, for a few weeks now.

I’ve got a take on this album which is at odds with a whole lot of people who make excellent music, such as Aaron Dessner (who produced their second album and appears on this one) and Jim White (who drums on one track here), or whose tastes regularly coincide with mine, both musicians and critics. And it’s perplexing me.

Luluc songs are quietly hushed, whisperingly restrained, mellowly modest, and delicately low-key. They are, if that is not clear, not in any way loud or demanding attention, even when enhanced by some extra vocals and humming brass in the liveliest track here, Heist, which has the rise and fall of a folk song transported into a hymn.

Indeed, while the credits list the likes of flute, bass, mellotron, organ, synthesisers, percussion, trumpet and trombone, their roles are subordinate to Randell’s voice, principally, but also to the atmosphere created. That atmosphere is not dark as such – in fact not dark at all, in any tragic or deeply wounded sense, even when taking in some sharp lines about mediocre suburbia from George Johnston’s book, My Brother Jack – but rather twilightish, and conducive to mulling over almost in passing, rather than deep thinking.

Luluc songs are slowish except when they’re slow, and never long, except when they’re shorter, so that ten songs here are done and dusted in a smidge over 35 minutes. The surprising thing about that time is that because the tempos and mood are on the ambling pace side of reflective, I look at the elapsed time each time and am surprised it has not been 60 or 70 minutes.

Of Randell’s singing, it could be said she is languorous in delivery and resistant to flowery runs up or down the scale. Or for that matter to many excursions through that scale - in the manner of, say, a Bill Callahan. Within the narrow band in which she operates, Randell has the tone but not the affectation of a Marlene Deitrich; the confined singing but not the pointedness of a Francoise Hardy; the range but not the drollness of a Leatitia Sadier.

These elements of Luluc have attracted applause and invitations to perform in shows such as tributes to Nick Drake. People think it intimate and beautiful. So why does it sound so lifeless? Why do I feel as if each track has staked its claim on some territory and may already have sunk roots? Why can I not muster either despair at its ordinariness or anger at its feebleness?


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