There’s an old joke, well known among music fans, about what happens when you play a country song backwards. There are a few variations, but generally, you get your wife back, your dog back, and you quit drinking. Less well known is the joke about what you get when you play a New Age song backwards: New Age music. I am reminded of this second joke by Little May’s debut album, For The Company.
This is not a criticism of Little May so much as it is of what passes for contemporary folk and indie rock and, by extension, what gets played on the radio – particularly our national youth broadcaster, which has served up truckloads of this goop in the past decade, from Mumford and Sons to Angus and Julia Stone. If loud-quiet-loud was the white rock sound of the early 1990s, this is the era of next to no dynamic range at all.
Little May fit in perfectly. The young Sydney trio (Liz Drummond, Hannah Field, Annie Hamilton) make acoustic-based music with minor flourishes – strings that swoop and soar as required, tinkling piano, electronic touches to keep things vaguely edgy – and their self-titled debut EP was a runaway success, at least if these things can be measured by the number of times they are streamed.
So much anticipation has surrounded the release of For The Company, produced by The National’s Aaron Brooking-Dessner. And by most objective measures it’s a good record, in the sense that there’s nothing obviously wrong with it. It’s well made, pleasing to the ear and just about guaranteed to be a hit, barring a poorly timed asteroid strike or a sudden shift in the cultural zeitgeist, which seems less likely.
It is, however, inescapably samey. Shifts in tempo, either within or between songs, are uncommon (Remind Me being a notable exception). The kick drum drives the songs forward; snare and cymbals, on the occasions they are used for percussive effect, are muted. The vocals and lyrics are sweetly doleful: “I drink away the last thing on my mind / You’re the closest thing I know to being homesick all the time.”
The end result is that For The Company doesn’t end up sounding like an album so much as 11 songs that – instead of being individually tailored to complement and balance each other – have been burnished to within an inch of their lives to maximise each one’s chances of cinematic or television placement, in a scene wherein the jilted heroine takes a moment to reflect vaguely upon her romantic follies.
Hopefully, For The Company will set Little May up for a long career. Their second album, however, will be a bigger test: having quickly painted themselves into a corner, do they risk artistic stagnation on the follow-up, or will they dare to shake things up with some bold variation on their own template? Let’s hope they take the second option, and that their audience is brave enough to go with them.
First published in The Guardian, 23 October 2015