A gentle intake of breath opens the debut album of Laura Groves, aka Blue Roses. It’s a gesture that establishes immediate intimacy and a kind of vulnerable trust, but it shouldn’t necessarily be seen as some kind of direct portal into the soul of the singer herself.
For one so young when the album was made, Groves has a canny knack for carefully generating these emotional effects, deploying them skilfully and sparingly throughout. Joni Mitchell once remarked to an interviewer who referred to her work as “confessional” that the assumption was based on gender stereotypes. As a woman, she had been interpreted continually as baring her innermost feelings whether this was the case or not. Sadly it seems we’re little further on today, with one critic who reviewed Blue Roses wishing she’d “get herself a new boyfriend”.
Lines such as, ‘When I decided/to live the rest of my life from a list/of towns and cities and populations,’ evoke nothing so much as a kind of convivial West Yorkshire take on the Beat vision
It’s a shame to make the comparison with Mitchell, but it seemed necessary to illustrate a point about the frequently sexist reception of emerging female singer-songwriters. The Joni and Kate Bush namedrops which get dragged out are tiresome reminders of how few women pursuing idiosyncratic paths of creativity have managed to succeed in the music industry. Consequently, whenever women artists appear with new visions of their own, they are hamstrung by critics making awkward links to the same small pool of antecedents. Against all the aural evidence these comparisons have already been forced on Blue Roses, despite her vocal lines possessing none of the yelping elasticity which is Bush’s most imitated mannerism, and only the occasional tinge of the jazz-influenced progressions of Mitchell.
Instead, this is an album that at the same time as it lovingly makes use of careworn yet cherished romanticisms, also charts genuinely new ground. In the current pop landscape, where women are usually marketed as one or another flavour of ersatz, rootless soul, there’s a sense of place embedded in Blue Roses’ work which is both residually reassuring and startlingly innovative. Lines such as, “When I decided/to live the rest of my life from a list/of towns and cities and populations,” and “Let’s go out for a drive in your car/we don’t have to go that far/let’s try to find a road that we don’t know/’til we don’t know where we are,” evoke nothing so much as a kind of convivial West Yorkshire take on the Beat vision.
Marvelling at the talent of Groves and her friends’ soaring harmonies and multi-instrumental skills, their friendly, unassuming demeanour and stage patter also provided an alternative inspiration to do it yourself
Once you know that Groves is from the village of Shipley and home-recorded the album with a few friends, the words and music give off a kind of freewheeling spontaneity incongruously yet gloriously set in a locale of grey stone, green hills, railway lines and russet leaves. That list in ‘I Am Leaving’, with its cheeky kiddie keyboard riff laid over bucolic fingerpicking, is more likely to consist of Ilkley, Otley, Hebden Bridge and Halifax than North Beach, Times Square, Denver and Desolation Peak. “And I can smell the bonfires in the street,” states Groves simply, unaffectedly and profoundly.
This warm, down-to-earth sensation also has the benefit of eliminating the forbidding distance between performer and listener. When I went to see Blue Roses live with my parents at the not-for-profit Nexus Art Cafe in Manchester, the vibe was homely and inclusive. Marvelling at the talent of Groves and her friends’ soaring harmonies and multi-instrumental skills, their friendly, unassuming demeanour and stage patter also provided an alternative inspiration to do it yourself. Instead of punk’s three-chord thrash, the usual method of expressing such sentiments, it seemed like a convincing expression of the democratic ‘people’s music’ ethos of folk, in contrast to the ‘genius’ discourse which has long permeated the singer-songwriter genre. Groves’ contribution to the wonderful Bandstand Busking project only confirms all these feelings further.
Although reviewers heaped praise on the album upon its release in mid 2009, criticisms seemed to focus on a perceived gaucheness, whether in terms of “overwrought” lyrics or the suggestion that some of the musical arrangements lacked the restraint which would come with the wisdom of age. Leaving aside the fact that Groves was only 21 at the time and could therefore have done little to avoid such criticisms (time-travel into the future being not quite possible yet), the charges are also way off the mark.
What’s striking about many of the lyrics is their emotional maturity. “I want to write a love song/you ask so nicely for one,” she sings in ‘Can’t Sleep’, skilfully turning the pressure to produce one into the topic of the song instead. In ‘Rebecca’, she occupies multiple perspectives, using a moment of emergent realisation (“I have come to realise my bad memories were an indulgence of mine”) to counsel a friend in a difficult situation, rather than wallowing privately.
There’s subtle word play in abundance – “you’re so good at getting my hopes up where they don’t belong/I can’t reach them” from the glockenspiel-led ‘Doubtful Comforts’ being one of my favourites, evoking a high dusty drawer in a country kitchen. The music, too, demonstrates multiple, twinkling layers of light and shade. The looked-for restraint, however, can also be found in the aforementioned ‘Doubtful Comforts’, as well as the spare piano intro of ‘I Wish I…’ and the relatively unadorned ‘Imaginary Fights’, showing a sophisticated ability to shift convincingly between minimal and maximal.
Initially tipped for big things, it seems that attention on Groves has recently been diverted by the rise to media worship status of Laura Marling, her closest contemporary in terms of age and genre. But Groves is an under-the-radar gem of an artist. Let’s hope that the two years of near media-blackout since the album’s release, rather than stunting growth, has given Blue Roses the time and space needed to flourish even further.