SHE’S NOT YOU KNOW. An amateur. Nor is anyone involved here.
Not in the string arrangements – written by Erkki Veltheim – which are both concordance and counter-story tellers, noticeable but fully integrated, minor and major players as required. Not in the production – by Laura (Jean) Englert and Tim Bruniges – which holds all things to be equal, whether organic and electronic, sublimated or overt, tending to rock or leaning back to interior pop, and makes this record sound sumptuous but never ornate.
Nor in the vocals, both lead and backing – the latter including Aldous Harding and Marlon Williams – which are always in reach and unfussy, like maybe we might do it if we had the chance and talent, but feel that little bit richer, that little bit warmer, that little bit better than anything we might ever get to on our very best days. And certainly not in the songwriting.
But far from even an oblique putdown of the part trained/part capable/part committed, or for that matter the racing car driver who jumps on the drums after a win and the reality TV show star who writes a song to showcase his claimed personal growth (both of whom feature in the early part of the song Amateurs), the amateurs of the album’s title are the people who want and care and try for the value of the effort, for the intellectual and emotional and physical response, for the elevation of the craft or the art.
That is, the people who should be rated for their willingness and their imagination, not the temporary rewards. “Amateurs never made a cent from love,” Englert sings.
If this sounds pious or – given the sales for Englert’s five previous albums wouldn’t amount to a hill of beans compared with Lorde or Rihanna or even her friend Courtney Barnett – self-serving, it would be a false assumption, even as she makes sometimes telling points about how little we ask of people we think important and how much we demand of those we think might want to be. And how we hang on to everything.
“Just before I was Laura Jean/I’d do sit-ups in my room/Trying to look good for the lead singer/Back when guitar cases were cool,” we hear in the intimate early-Joni guitar-picking of Something To Look Forward To Forever. But the song had begun with the bitter tang of pre-teen disgust that we know still plays in the self-evaluation of the older Laura Jean, and it ends, as does the album, with a casting off of the value of performative truth telling (“Please turn away from me as I confess to you’) and a celebration of elusiveness. “I want something to look forward to forever/That’s what magic is.”
Rather than justifying herself or lashing out, the stories she tells here are just as she has always done: small to the point of (seeming) insignificance, fractured and narratively in the moment rather than building to some revelation, personal even when they may be character-based, and most of all empathetic.
In Too Much To Do, which begins as circular, activated folk and becomes a kind of Philadelphia soul edging into disco, she sings of getting to this point in her life: “My teenage prayers/Were full of airs/Lead me on/I prayed to someone who was not there/I thought I was going to serve his earth/But I ended up on stage.” The energy comes from upward turning strings and drums, but also from the counter-messaging of someone declining excesses (“what’s getting high but risking my life and reputation?”) because time is not to be wasted.
The rich domain of A Funny Thing Happened is an unlikely blend of Fleetwood Mac and Cocteau Twins, abstract shimmers and concrete tethers, low ceiling murmuring and high sky guitars, holding themselves around a story of aspirations and life-altering moments that can’t help but find their way a kind of dramatic tension that feels grander than its component parts.
Yet in the muted acoustic light of Pauly, which may be a song about a lost rosella, a tame parrot and a friendship of constraints, a metaphor for knowing how to let go, or both, the colours come in brief splashes of pitched higher voice and flourished strings, and resolution is as low-key as “we walked home alone”. While in the even more subdued, and even more enigmatic, Rainbow Club, Englert reclines on strings and acoustic which glide with an unexpressed but tightly felt sense of absence.
Maybe it is avowedly amateur in the sense of not grasping at you but Amateurs knows exactly what it’s doing.
Whether in the mix of the coiled and the graceful in Teenager Again, which recalls PJ Harvey circa Stories From The City…, or the early ‘70s piano-based singer/songwriter of Market On The Sand, the song which most celebrates amateurs while contextualising them, Englert keeps finding ways to stay on the inside of every story without inducing claustrophobia. Keeps finding ways to make us not just feel but care.
SPOTIFY: Listen to Laura Jean – Amateurs
APPLE MUSIC: Listen to Laura Jean – Amateurs