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First Time Really Feeling (Milk!/Remote Control)

There’s something about Liz Stringer’s voice which doesn’t merely suggest depth of understanding, it confirms it. It’s the kind of quality you might find in a friend of long-standing, or maybe even more so, it’s the kind of quality you hope to find in a counsellor, an advisor, an elder – a source of comfort you turn to for solidity of thought mixed with flexibility of understanding.

Reading back through my reviews of her earlier albums – this is her sixth, since her debut in 2006 – it’s clear this isn’t a new quality or accumulation of aged wisdom (or some particular revelation of mine). Nor should it be mistaken for the final judgment on her work.

That is, sounding like “something deeply soaked in some oak barrel, stretched out to dry on ancient wooden racks and seasoned with herbs collected by wizened old women in old pinafores” (as I gushed when falling hard for 2008’s Pendulum), is one thing. An important thing, sure, but just one thing.

Bringing the knowledge and empathy that makes that tone ring true, singing words that roll through stories and characters - that could be you, could be me, could be any one of us - and leaving us without any doubt that Stringer knows, is the greatest connection and finest skill.

First Time Really Feeling - the kind of thing someone who no longer drinks and who no longer has emotions, reactions and feelings mediated by a semi-permanent buzz – is an album about people sometimes getting through, sometimes not. And Stringer gets them.

She gets the intense “romance” of a pair of young lovers married at 19, adults but a long way from finished, as an inferno burns in one of them in Dangerous. “We fucked like we fought, ripped the flesh from the sinew/No greater fever between any two”. The threat of violence, the fear of inadequacy and failure behind it, is captured in a few lines (including this heart punch for some of us: “Your own father you couldn’t talk to easily/To say, there’s something in you, and I’m terrified it might be in me.”) that examine variations of the song’s title.

But the breadth of Stringer’s writing takes us deeper than this, finding and understanding the love that survives the rage, accompanies the change, strengthens the bond. “But I’m so proud of you, and my love is a monster/Ain’t luck that got you through, you earned everything that belongs to ya/Our kids will come ‘round, they gotta find out for themselves.”

There are touch points of life in My History that you can practically smell, and definitely touch: “The rough of the red school jumper on my arm/The catch of each drag sparking deep in my chest/We sat at tables made from crates in a garage/I’d only take half at a time, I was always too scared.”

But what makes this song kick in beyond casual recognition of small, real, details is the low hum of need that was once blunted by alcohol and other things, now is observed from a safer distance, but never has been and never will be wiped away. “I miss the oblivion sometimes like it’s an old friend/Anger is sadness, control ends in madness, we all have it in us, we are everything at once/We are all the same.”

Like Glen Hansard crossed with Mary Gauthier, the best things about Stringer’s lyrics are a mix of bluntness and soulfulness, that live in music that is a similar mix of rock/country straightforwardness and the bottled emotion of soul. It’s rootsy but it’s also solidly urban.

She is a beautiful player, on whatever instrument she chooses, but best of all she guides you through the unfurling country-soul of No Parting Words as comfortably as she does through storm cloud-rock of The Metrologist, and accompanies you in the blend of church and ‘80s bar in Victoria with the same ease she charges into jangle with the title track.

And then she pulls you right in, hunkers down with the hurt, before drawing strength from the support around her in My History, which plays out as the kind of AA meeting set to folk music that non-believers could accept. You’d accept because Stringer sounds like she’d get you. And if she didn’t get you first time, she’d let you explain, and she’d listen.

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