Novo Amor – new album ‘Birthplace’

Novo Amor – new album ‘Birthplace’

On first listening to Ali Lacey’s debut solo record ‘Birthplace’ (under the name Novo Amor), I was transported back to when I saw Sufjan Stevens play live, supporting Rosie Thomas in 2004 at Birmingham’s Glee Club.  Not just because of the musical similarities with Stevens’ albums from that time, but because of the way I was won over.  Sometimes an artist grabs an audience with energy and power, not so with Novo Amor; ‘Birthplace’ is a beautifully understated piece of music that has been made with the utmost care and attention.  It slowly and surely gets under your skin, and its subtle melodies, angelic voices and earthy instrumentation soon become hypnotisingly addictive.

The album opens with its strongest ear worm ’Emigrate’, with one of the few memorable chorus melodies enveloping the heartbreaking line: “Hardly anything, hardly anything works now”.  Its hook immediately plants itself in your mind and in some way remains with you the longest.  That is not to say the remaining thirty minutes is lacking in hooks, they are just more subtle.

Other stand out moments are the single ‘Birthplace’ (you must check out the video that accompanies this song, showcasing Ali’s strong ecological beliefs and raising awareness of plastic pollution in the oceans); ‘State Lines’; and ‘Sleepless’.  However, saying that, there are no weak moments on the album.

‘Birthplace’ is produced and arranged masterfully, using acoustic instruments throughout: guitars, banjos, pianos, violins, percussion and a sprinkling of brass.  Floating above everything in acres of sonic space is Lacey’s ethereal falsetto.  It is a glorious blend of Sufjan Stevens and Jonsi from Sigur Ros, but not enough like them to be accused of imitation.  It is often multi-tracked with a harmony line an octave below, which intensifies the vocal parts.

One of my favourite aspects of the production is the drums, which are used sparingly and delicately.  There is no standard bass drum on the first beat and snare on the third here and it sounds as if beaters, rather than sticks have been used predominantly throughout.  This gives the feel a more orchestral sound; percussionist rather than just drums.  It’s amazing what a difference this makes, as there is no sharp attack in the dynamics, no crack of a snare, just rolling tom toms that pull you along through the song.

It would have been easy to fill these songs with sampled string sections to make it sound like the cinematic scores audiences are well used to, but Lacey instead has used just a few cello and violin lines.  They are beautifully recorded so you can hear every bow stroke.

What is interesting about Novo Amor’s ‘Birthplace’ is that it stays with you, demanding further listens.  The songs feel almost always out of reach, but so hauntingly graceful that you want to hear them again to try and capture their essence.  Maybe it is because you can’t necessarily sing along with Ali and you always feel a little distant from the songs that you keep trying to get close to them.  When the final track ‘Oh, Round Lake’ abruptly ends, there is a feeling of loss; an emptiness, which is only filled by going back to the start and rejoicing in ’Emigrate’ all over again.  And once the album starts you do not want it to end, because frankly, it is flawless.

Having missed Ali’s earlier releases, particularly the collaboration with Ed Tullett on their album ‘Heiress’, luckily there is much more to discover.  Hopefully when Ali completes the USA leg of his tour, he will come home and play for us here in the UK.  I will be there.

Reviewer: Alan Neilson

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