Hey Dawn (Cooking Vinyl)
EVERYONE KNOWS that rule-breakers do not come named Edwina Margaret – that’s the name of an old governor-general’s wife or the English teacher who fired your interest in Jane Austen and tolerated your fondness for Christopher Brookmyre and Jodi Picoult. And when someone chops that name down to Fanny, it still feels like naughty and nice rather (at least outside England anyway) and you could imagine them getting away with I heart Fanny on a t-shirt.
Everyone understands that rule-breakers do not appear smiling like they’ve found a cache of good times and all they can think of is sharing them with you. And it is obvious that if they write songs about life on “the western side of the Great Divide” and tell tales of when “There were seven different cakes on the table that day/For everyone's birthday in the month of May/Wal turned three and Grandpa, eighty-eight”, the only rebel you’re going to see in their company is when you all do some sportswear shopping.
The problem with what everyone knows though is that Fanny Lumsden keeps breaking rules. Like the one that says you can’t cross back and forth between country, pop and rock without losing a grip on one, two or all three areas. Or the one that says you can’t be relatable in the regions (where apparently real people live), remarked upon in the cities (where of course pretentious wankers live) and transferable past our borders (where people who are aren’t like you and me exist seemingly without need for us).
And, biggest rule of all, you can’t do all those and write genuinely good songs that make you forget rules 1 & 2.
The way When I Die bustles in its hedgerow creates a busy but not relentless momentum, however, the real drive comes from the way the guitar piles jangle on top of chugging and then under the solo puts a George Harrison-like nasally wah-wah into the mix. Before you know it the zest of this song about a man who asks that his soon-to-be-curtailed life ends with his ashes being shot into the sky (a true story, from a Lumsden fan) has caught you in its joi de vivre about not much vivre being left.
There’s even more existential examination in the next track, Lucky, where the protagonist is all too aware of not just the existence of luck but the implausibility of believing our “good” qualities are defined by such randomness of life to accept truisms. Lumsden and cowriter Matt Fell create a kind of bluegrass sea shanty – mandolins and male voices swinging below deck, a swaying rhythm and brass that seems up in the sails – that matches this mix of hope and acceptance.
Not that acceptance is something advocated generally, particularly for women: not of the rules of behaviour, not the definitions of success, not the personal uniqueness of crises small or large. This is despite the bright-eyed perspective of Enjoy The Ride (“I like the idea of finding a little solace in the things that surround us) and Soar (“So let’s head outside with our arms stretched wide on the lawn”), and the family narrative of Ugly Flowers (“But Dot’s out of town so Mum stepped up to the plate/And we all sing along/And life goes on and on”) suggesting what you might call old fashion values, with all the baggage that used to come with that.
If the big urban twang-meets-buoyant ‘80s inner city pub feel of Millionaire (as in “I’ve never wanted to be a millionaire”) finds her with feet planted in self-awareness, in the nouveu New Wave of You Will Be Fine – there’s a touch of jerkiness, a smattering of handclaps, a pure pop pre-chorus ending up in girl group chorus – Lumsden contrasts advice to pull your shoulders back, straighten up your shirt, smile more, earn bigger etc etc with the simple reminder that “When you left that shit behind/The world didn’t blow up”.
Maybe the best examples of the subtle rule breaking on this record come in two songs that wouldn’t necessarily be the pick of the album, though quality remains.
The ballads which open and close the record, the title track at the beginning and Stories at the end, are frank in their feeling and ripe for a predictable tug on heartstrings and purse strings. But Lumsden prefers letting relative simplicity do the work. Hey Dawn opens a capella and finishes with not much more, even as in-between these points accordion and piano fill in first, and then move out of the way of brass and some swelling grandeur; Stories lets that brass settle casually low and in the background, just as Lumsden’s voice leans more to conversational and plainly emotional.
Many others would milk it. Even more would tell you to do otherwise would be foolish. But Lumsden trusts in the song, not the rules.