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Kitty & Frank (Little Secret Records)

Bold. Brave.

Firstly, Lucie Thorne’s decision to tell a story of desire (for freedom, for another, for meaning) in a concept album sung mostly from the viewpoint of the female half of a historical love story. Then, to do so in a new, for her, sonic environment of synthesised beats, electronic keyboards and close-quarters vocals.

This is the tale – tall, maybe, but definitely true – of a young Kitty Walsh who gives up a marriage and a safe if proscribed rural life in early 1860s NSW, to run away with a dapper scoundrel and thief, Frank Gardiner. It ends, badly, in New Zealand and San Francisco.

Try getting that past a record company exec, or radio programmer, if you’re brave.

If bold and brave, it is nonetheless within Thorne’s wheelhouse as a lyricist with an ear for everyday poetry, and a musician who has understood and conveyed desire better than most. While there is one key decision here which becomes a significant flaw for me, lyrically and tonally, this is very fine work.

The way Kitty describes the goldfields near her homestead (“The veins keep stretching/Out, over and down, it’s rife/With fortune shifters) and the impact of her first encounters with Gardiner (“One wild-wind night/You chanced to call/And if you call this thunder/Then let it roll, let it roll”) or Gardiner’s despair in a Darlinghurst prison cell (“Held in sandstone cut from hands like mine/A chink of light, the weight of time/It’s a wild wild thing is fear”) and the dribbling away of joy on the other side of the Pacific (“And in the fall, when the wind whips all/Sweet darkening clair de lune”) are natural but evocative.

The atmospheres created by Thorne and keyboardist Chris Abraham, especially, and her other regular foils, David Symes on bass and Hamish Stuart on drums, are flexible but consistently draw you in. As ever, sensuality is a core Thorne trait, both in Kitty’s desire for Frank and in the way the landscape palpably encroaches on each character and each turn in the story.

The feel is of growing intensity of emotion, a girding of loins that flourishes in defiance and thrills with release- there’s unfettered happiness for many reasons in the ultra retro R&B synths of Catherine Christie - until in the slowly collapsing mood of Valley, the forlorn ‘80s curlicues of Barbary Coast and, in the end, the muscular sadness of Twilight Star, the story stretches out hopelessness like unfurling tape.

In Nothing Comes Close, piano plays gently but firmly, guitar briefly spotted; All The Love by contrast has sprightly synths over a perky rhythm, all confidence and springing forth. In Golden Plains, acoustic guitar and morning ride rhythm crosses paths with a rising tide of synthesisers and a solid thump of drums, like Peter Gabriel finding his post-Genesis feet; while Wheogo Hill finds that thump beginning to dissolve into the thicker swirl of sound around the synths until a piano rolls through like a gust of wind.

The final element in this project is Thorne’s singing. It has previously been a quietly strong aspect of her records, her preference for low key mood-setting carrying that element of sensuality I mentioned earlier in its intimations rather than explicitly.

Underplaying has worked well for Thorne, but this time I think she’s overdone it. The emphasis on intimacy, of a story being told to us from, at most, across a small table, narrows the range melodically and in energy. Rather than having us lean in to feel it more, this can at times feel flat and deter investigation.

A part-solution for listeners is to bring the songs in closer via headphones, making a virtue of the hush and turning your attention inwards. Meanwhile, the album’s other virtues remain just as potent.

A version of this review was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald

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