Storm Queen (Sugar Mountain/Virgin)
Grace Cummings the actor fully inhabits, comes to define, Grace Cummings the singer.
It may well work the other way around – in fact I suspect it would, though I’ve not yet seen her theatrically or on film – but if there was any doubt with her earlier recordings, Storm Queen removes that as definitively as Cummings erases the line between those parts of her creative endeavours.
Each track here arrives with the performance seemingly filled in with (unseen, but instinctively understood by us) back story; each character feels connected, existing in a similar world, but delineated by subtle shadings and small differences in “costume” and physicality; lines are intense, thick with meaning, and the text is matched by delivery that is sometimes wrenched, sometimes barely guided, but always emerging from a well of truth.
During Dreams, as she sings “what a way to waste away” in the song’s denouement, what may seem like condemnation in fact feels like release for a character we know exists in a long-damaged space. Within the theatrically escalating title track there is a saxophone disrupting as much as it leads (eventually like something from a John Zorn cut), a reference to Townes Van Zandt in the first line and life as “straight from a country tune” in the last line, and a creeping desolation that comes in like a cold blast.
In a voice that can pitch low to the point of guttural, at other times feels stretched at the sides, and in Fly A Kite more than a hint of German cabaret, Cummings recalls Fred Neil in her ability to simultaneously tread lightly and grip you tightly. Raglan, in particular, while dressed in a kind of Irish folk band arrangement rather than Neil’s preferred voice-and-guitar, suggests an empty stage, a single spotlight, and a room made quiet by focus rather than demand.
The result of these elements, the flowering of her songwriting, is an album where the freedom to pop outside and have a breather doesn’t really exist: you’re either in it for the duration or you pack your bags early. Is that a good thing? Yes, unless your attention span, or willingness to feel, has been shortened.
Storm Queen is a series of vignettes but all part of a whole, just as it is a performance but a whole-of-body one. Grace Cummings the actor is in it all, and Grace Cummings the singer makes sense of it all.