No music writer will win any prizes for pointing out where Harriette Pilbeam, aka Hatchie, is coming from. Not to do so though would be ignoring the elephant in the room. Right down to the blurred cover photo, no one familiar with the dream-pop of the Cocteau Twins, the Sundays, Lush or My Bloody Valentine will find anything especially new about Keepsake, the Brisbane singer-songwriter’s debut album.
But with that out of the way, dwelling on those influences – influences which Pilbeam herself has acknowledged – also misses the point. If you are already conversant with those aforementioned acts, there is much to like here. If you aren’t, it hardly matters: everything old is new again. Keepsake’s lead single Without A Blush has already notched over 750,000 Spotify streams; Sure, from last year’s Sugar And Spice EP, has clocked 3.5 million (including a remix by the Cocteaus’ Robin Guthrie).
What’s made Hatchie jump out of the pack is her voice. Even drenched in endless layers of effects and reverb, it’s got a keening, yearning quality that cuts right through Keepsake’s washed-out guitar textures, and the background hubbub of any cafe or club in which it appears. Even when the overall sound of Keepsake drifts hazily into the background – and it often does – Pilbeam’s timbre and phrasing keeps pulling you back in.
That said, getting the full rewards out of Keepsake takes some persistence. While Pilbeam and John Castle have done their best to mix things up with different rhythmic textures, electronic, dance and classic indie-rock sounds, your initial impression of the album is likely to be a sonic blur as it passes by. Even as that mesmerising, insistent voice keeps beckoning you, it takes a little time for the 10 songs to differentiate themselves.
Without A Blush, at first, comes off like the exception that proves the rule. Its hook immediately recalls the backing vocals of My Bloody Valentine’s 1991 classic Soon, but the longer it goes, the bigger and more enveloping this song becomes; when Hatchie sings “I didn’t want to end the dream”, I didn’t want it to either. Similarly, the chiming guitars and cascading vocal trills of Her Own Heart are reminiscent of a lost Sundays gem – but it’s just a good song, and Harriet Wheeler’s voice has been lost to the pop world for too long anyway.
It’s in Keepsake’s middle tracks that Hatchie begins punching holes in her own dream-pop web. Obsessed features a programmed dance rhythm and a mantra-like lyric to fit the title. Secret is the closest thing to straight pop, and it’s irresistible: when Hatchie asks if you can keep a secret, it works because it draws the listener closer; you’re being invited to share an intimacy.
Two songs more clearly point to Hatchie’s likely future. Unwanted Guest is a 1980s-style floor-filler that comes on, bizarrely, like a lost cousin of Wang Chung’s Dance Hall Days. Even more convincing is the dance-floor pop of Stay With Me – a hit Kylie Minogue might kill for. It’s the best vocal turn on the album. “I feel nothing, I feel numb,” Pilbeam sings, but her voice, at its most melancholy and wistful, betrays her longing.
The obvious reference points of Hatchie’s debut album are only a problem if you let them be. She’s a smart songwriter, with time on her side to forge a more distinctive identity. In the meantime, as Wilde’s aphorism tells us, talent borrows; genius steals.
First published in The Guardian, 21 June 2019