Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Album Review: Mel Parsons - Drylands (2015)

Given that she's a two-time Tui Award nominee, a member of high profile Kiwi "supergroup" Fly My Pretties, and a regular touring act in this part of the world, it might seem a little odd that local songbird Mel Parsons would turn to Kickstarter to help launch her third solo release.

But I guess that's more of a comment on the changing nature of our music industry – or the "independent" music industry – in New Zealand in 2015, than it is a reflection on Parsons' standing within it. The pros, cons, and foibles of self-releasing and crowd-funding albums is perhaps a topic for another more in-depth blogpost on another day. Suffice to say I got involved, I pledged on Parsons' behalf, and last week I was the lucky recipient of an advance/signed CD copy (and a download) of Drylands.

There's something distinctly down-to-earth about the music of Mel Parsons. It’s probably her West Coast upbringing that allows the 30-something singer-songwriter to cut through the crap, and to stay on the outer periphery of trends and scenes. To remain faithful to what has served her so well in the past – her very own blend of alt-country and folk.

It’s also clear that Parsons understands that beauty can often be found in simplicity. Because there’s nothing overly complex in the music found on Drylands. Which might be interpreted as a barb if she didn’t appear to be such a prolifically-talented perfectionist. Yes, Parsons keeps it simple, and in many ways her music is a throwback to a far less complicated age, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have a unique 21st century spin, and its execution is flawless right across the album’s 13-track, 52-minute duration. The real strength of Drylands rests with its lyrical content, and thankfully, great songwriting will never be out of fashion.

The folk and country elements that make up the bulk of the album are not particularly unique to New Zealand either; Parsons has toured extensively across North America and those influences shine through. There is such a strong Americana presence (on tracks like ‘Alberta Sun’ and ‘Driving Man’, just for starters), any newcomer to her music would be forgiven for thinking she grew up in a remote location on that vast continent, rather than one of the remotest on a small island at the bottom of the South Pacific.

But the wide variety of instrumentation on offer – acoustic forms, cello, slide etc – ultimately means it also feels wrong to try to pigeonhole this music. Calling it country, or folk, fails to acknowledge the rock moments, or some of the Celtic flavours, or its wider pop accessibility.

Aside from the clever wordsmithery, the star turn here is Parsons’ voice, which is at its best when taking on a slightly rough-around-the-edges or lived-in hue, over the less ragged, more pure vocal she’s also capable of achieving.

Produced by Lee Prebble at Wellington’s Surgery, Drylands was officially released on April 10. You can pick up a copy from the Mel Parsons Bandcamp page (here). Parsons is also touring across New Zealand throughout April and May in support of the release, so look out for her at a town near you soon.

Highlights: ‘Alberta Sun’, ‘Non Communicado’, ‘Don’t Wait’ (which features Ron Sexsmith), ‘Get Out Alive’, and ‘Down So Long’.

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