Tuesday 12th July: A few years ago my first dalliance with social networking involved me signing up for a MySpace account. I didn’t do too much with it (except check out bands to see whether they were worth going to see and print off flyers to get in cheaply). For quite a while “Tom” was my only friend and it wasn’t too long before a colleague told me that I was too old for that site and that I should, in fact, be using Facebook. Eventually, though, a rather attractive red-head got in touch.
It’s probably not what you think (although I still have the account and I do occasionally get those type of messages as well…) This was Esther O’Connor, getting in touch, as some musicians are wont to do, with people who might like her music, to tout her albums and get people to sign up to her mailing list. I’m fairly certain I responded (although I can find no evidence of having done so) and, having listened to some samples, told her that I had added the albums to my “to buy” list. Then, rather rudely, I completely forgot about them. In my defence, there are rather a lot of albums on that list and I only maintain it mentally. A few days ago another message came through – with a third album in the offing – this one to be released under the name of Ashton Lane – Esther was offering the previous two at just £5 each. Well, I’m rarely one to turn down a bargain, especially when comparisons are being made with Stevie Nicks.
The Place Where We Are was self-released in 2003, after an EMI deal fell through and my copy is by-lined simply “Esther” and vocals are attributed to Esther Duffin. (Esther is the daughter of Wet, Wet, Wet guitarist Graeme Duffin and most of the songs on both albums are co-written with him and producer Sandy Jones). I’m afraid that I don’t get the Stevie Nicks comparisons – there’s none of the trademark warble in Esther’s voice. I can hear, in some songs, the quirkiness that I associate with Tori Amos (what little I know of her) and there’s a hint of Meredith Brooks in the likes of Bring It On, Move On and Nirvana Man. What you do get, though, is a richly emotive voice which is used to great effect in a variety of styles. The beautiful simplicity of the title track melds superbly with the slightly more complex and no less entrancing Piano Girl, while Fragile State shows that you can do rock without necessarily needing power and Driftwood And Dreams shows that you can do powerful without resorting to rock. For the most part, this is a chilled out album – quiet and almost introspective with mostly acoustic guitar or piano-led songs, the best of which is Beautiful. Tracks such as What’s A Girl To Do and Clear And Blue raise the tempo slightly, but even the electric guitars of the latter are somehow subdued, allowing the vocals to shine. In Too Deep and I’ll Be Yours veer away from the sweetness and light by incorporating a kind of discordance that somehow still works, while Sailing Solar Wind ends the album on a lovely relaxed note. I have to admit that, now that I’ve listened to it a few times, this album is growing on me. Even Remote Life, my least favourite track on the album, makes the geek in me smile with its reference to The Matrix.
On the other hand, 2006’s Right Here bursts into life from the first note of the title track. The addition of flute and violin gives some tracks slightly more of a Celtic feel and the increased use of electric guitar makes the album seem a bit more pop-rock and a lot more up-beat. Hold On feels particularly folky with, I believe, the first use of a cajongo (I had to look it up) in my CD collection. There’s something really familiar about Saturday Man – I can’t put my finger on exactly what – and the Meredith Brooks comparisons resurface during the rockier All Right, Right Now, which contains some very nice guitar work from husband Tim, who also plays on four other tracks. Things quieten down as Honesty almost sees a return to the quiet style of most of the debut album, but still manages to give the impression of a fuller sound, before Yesterday’s Too Late and Out On The Water explode the album back into a catchy pop-rock style, The latter is one of my favourite tracks on the album, with its vocal harmonies reminding me a little of (Canadian trio) Shaye while showcasing Graeme McGeoch’s lovely violin playing. Chasing Rainbows contains a nice guitar riff among its melange of styles and is this album’s “discordant-but-works” track. Hope returns to the folky feel, with more cajongo and lots of violin providing a suitable backing to Esther’s gorgeous vocals while Tomorrow’s City, my favourite track, has a fascinating atmospheric sound thanks to both keyboards and the vocal mix. Like the previous album, Right Here is rounded off in a relaxed tone, this time with the all-too-brief You.
Overall, two very nice additions to my collection. It’s probably obvious from the above that I prefer the second album, which has a fuller sound overall. If the increase in quality continues, the third album will definitely be worth looking out for.