Trobairitz (Good Stem Records/MGM)
No, no, no, Melanie Horsnell. Did you not get the memo?
There’s a way these things are meant to go when you have an album of almost brutal (sonic) simplicity – voice, guitar, and that’s it – with the none-more-atractive tone of a folk-ish record that was made in 1967 and left undiscovered for 40 or 50 years.
And it goes double if it is a woman, so you can mention people like Sibylle Baier and Vashti Bunyan, or Linda Perhacs: figures of lost opportunities and sealed innocence, quiet singing and resistance to posturing. While of course making connections to the sainted figure of Nick Drake.
In other words, albums of both literal and inferred sadness, whose gentleness belies the harsh results of life conveyed in the songs. Melancholy? Yeah, and the rest.
But Horsnell’s Trobairitz – the name, from a language of southern Europe, meaning female troubadours of the medieval age – is not like that. Nothing like that at all really.
Without foot stomping or boisterous delivery, without dealing exclusively in the sunny side of the coin, it is, overall, a record prepared to see a kind of happiness and even a kind of joy. Certainly, one of finding peace at points in your life when things have derailed some, which is in itself a happiness to be valued. As she sings in Bordertown, “We’re making mistakes, but learning.”
There is love lost, yes, but its passing is not in bitterness but acceptance. There’s also love found, and kept. Because you know it happens too, right? There is frank desire (“This woman is ready/For you knocking at her door/This woman is ready/For you stomping on her floor … cause you want her”), a firm decision to draw the line at the pain already caused because it has to stop sometime, while in Princes Park Motel – which reminds me of some of the beautiful early songs of Laura Jean – abandoning hope oddly enough comes with its own kind of trust and hope.
And there is a kind of humour in wisdom, seen clearly in I Learned How To Love From Love Songs (written with Catherine Britt) which immediately recreates a downtown coffee bar of skivvies, cigarettes and desert boots in its gentle picking and light singing of opening lines of “I learned how to live from Dylan/And that’s why I’m so shy/I learned how to love from love songs/But love songs only made me cry.”
Even Sometimes, the most sombre-sounding track here (and the only one Horsnell didn’t write or co-write) moves from the fringes of the melancholic to the ruminative to the sanguine. “Sometimes I lie, but doesn’t everybody, sometimes … I feel like a child, but doesn’t everybody, sometimes?”
And Forgotten Woman, whose story is the bleakest in its reality for a woman on the fringes of town and our attention, retains in its country ballad shape a dogged refusal to succumb, Horsnell singing “there must be somewhere for someone like me” with just enough (blind?) hope to make the drive out of another town feel like a skerrick of momentum not escape.
Horsnell, whose last record was an attractive double act with Steve Appel (The World Has A Gentle Soul, reviewed here) but has recordings drawn from her time living in France as well as Australia, sounds not just unhurried but unfussed on Trobairitz.
It’s a joy to listen to because for this troubadour there’s nothing to prove, just stories to tell, and the pleasures of sharing them.