Back in the early to mid 1990s, somewhere in the unclaimed hinterland that existed between grunge, punk and goth, a number of intriguing and experimental female fronted, female dominated or (sometimes) all female bands emerged.
In the UK, Daisy Chainsaw, fronted by an unkempt, beribboned and mini-dress wearing Katie Jane Garside, were claimed by a grunge and riot grrrl audience who would follow Garside onto her later band, QueenAdreena.
Around the same time as Garside was leaving Daisy Chainsaw, Miranda Sex Garden – three girls spotted singing Elizabethan madrigals on London’s Portobello Road, who had had the unenviable task of opening for Blur at the Astoria in 1991 – were evolving from a purely Elizabethan tradition into full on avant garde rock and were claimed by the goths. In between these two camps were a little known band called Tabitha Zu, later just Zu, fronted by Mel Garside.
Just as Katie Jane Garside had moved on to pastures new by the late 1990s with QueenAdreena, so MSG’s Katherine Blake also moved on, returning to her classical and Elizabethan roots with the Mediaeval Baebes, a band who, like MSG, although rooted in a very old tradition, have evolved their sound dramatically over the years. In 1996, US band Rasputina released their first album, Thanks for the Ether and, like MSG, they made use of violins instead of guitars as lead instruments, creating a raw, bloody and, at times, delicate and decorous new kind of rock. Songs such as ‘Transylvanian Concubine’ led to a spot on the Buffy the Vampire Slayer soundtrack and, again, the interest of a goth audience.
Garside is highly capable of creating atmosphere and tension with voice alone
Although Mel Garside played and sang on the Mediaeval Baebes Mirabilis album, and has also provided bass duties for Queen Adreena, her first solo album didn’t appear until 2006.
Recording as Maple Bee, Garside writes and records songs that are frequently subtle and pared down, sometimes layered with different musical textures, which could be seen to be a radical reinterpretation of folk. Lyrically songs are often dark and sad, but always far from depressing in tone. Like Rasputina and Miranda Sex Garden, Garside often uses violin as lead instrument, sometimes writing songs that are little more than voice and violin. The result is often sparse and highly atmospheric, with the taut ‘Alright (Build me a house)’ a highlight of 2006’s debut Hello Eve.
The album’s cover image of a mediaeval style goth maiden amidst smoky background and songs such as ‘Bell Song’ are indicative of Garside’s time spent with the Mediaeval Baebes, but despite this ‘Rare Colours’ relies on atmospheric glitchy electro for its sound and the album’s standout track ‘Moth touch’ is a muscular windswept affair delivered in oddly lilting tones.
While ‘Moth touch’ showcases the complexity of Garside’s work, it’s ‘Turn in’ and ‘Cocooner’ which most clearly display her penchant for layers of musical textures. ‘Cocooner’ sets outside noises alongside angst filled wails, minimalist instrumentation and whispered stream of consciousness vocals which gradually form into a mantra: ‘Be the same, be the change’.
The restful and folky ‘No place’, with its soothing refrain ‘Wake up my love’ brings what would have been an exciting and promising debut to close.
Garside’s voice, which I can only describe as being both sensual and girlish, while remaining on the right side of twee, is equally as much her instrument of choice as violin, drum machine or guitar. She is highly capable of creating atmosphere and tension with voice alone, which I would say is something that always sounds easier than it actually is.
You can see it soundtracking a street scene at night, evocative as it is of the rainy city, of mild loneliness and longing
2008’s follow up, Home, with its cover photo of Garside; all jet black hair, white face and kohl-rimmed eyes, suggests a deliberate ploy by her new record company, Xie, for a more emo/indie audience, as well as revealing the eerie physical resemblance between Melanie and her sister Katie Jane.
As if to reinforce this bid for the alt rock crowd, the album opens with ‘While you were sleeping’; a guitar fuelled, no nonsense, driving, forceful song. Although there’s nothing wrong with it, I can’t help but feel that it’s a mistake in that the production sounds too generic, almost like a Bernard Butler production job that occupies the centre ground between indie and pop. This means that Garside, whose previous album had suggested a very strong distinctive voice, ends up sounding downright ordinary.
Fortunately this doesn’t last and the acoustic ‘Me & Rose’, a tender, pensive and above all beautifully subtle track is a definite highlight. In its melancholy folksiness it evokes sadness without depressing the listener and has a haunting quality that makes it impossible to forget.
‘Queen 23’ reveals the extent to which Garside’s storytelling abilities had developed, with its narrative tale of Queens, princes and loneliness. ‘I Want It All’ meanwhile, despite its swaggering title, is a pared down electro tinged affair, wracked with tension.
Another highlight is the moody and atmospheric ‘Somebody Take Me Home’, which has an almost filmic quality to it. You can see it soundtracking a street scene at night, evocative as it is of the rainy city, of mild loneliness and longing possibly coupled with a quiet despair. While many of the songs on this album seemed to be deliberately breaking free from a tradition and heritage shared with the Mediaeval Baebes, ‘So Far From Lost’ sees a return to this range of mediaeval instrumentation. The album finishes with the rocky ‘This Face This Name’, which works well as it is far from conventional, having an almost shamanic quality to it.
The piano flourishes made me think of the kind of mood created by Tori Amos on Songs from the Choirgirl Hotel
2010’s Chasing Eva, with its 21 tracks and sleeve that is almost identical to 2006’s Hello Eve is something of a puzzler. Made up in equal parts by the whole of the Hello Eve album (annoyingly re-ordered) and new songs, it was presumably released as a way of acquainting newer fans with her debut, which was released on a different label to both Home and this album. It is now not that easy to get hold of.
There are enough new songs here to make an album and had they been released that way it would have shown the musical progression Garside has made since 2008 much more clearly. Mixing the two albums together does work, if you haven’t already heard Hello Eve, but if you have it means that both that album and the new songs are somewhat spoiled.
Of the new tracks, ‘This Time’ is a definite highlight; a rather lovely electro tinged swirling pool of delicacy. The vocals are wonderfully controlled and full of tension, while the piano flourishes in the context of what is a very complex song made me think of the kind of mood created by Tori Amos on Songs from the Choirgirl Hotel.
Elsewhere, ‘Around For Eva’ sounds like a rollicking piece of folk that wouldn’t be out of place on a Mediaeval Baebes album, the quietly poignant ‘Sun on snow’ is good, with its unusual instrumentation making it stand out, and ‘Old Ties’ with its shuffling rhythm and echo also stands out. What doesn’t work is ‘Perhaps Perhaps Perhaps’, a cover of the sultry Doris Day classic which, while highly inventive, doesn’t entirely come off.
While Chasing Eva should be regarded as mainly a catch-up album, I have hopes that a voice as unique as Garside’s will survive, and that she will return (hopefully in the not too distant future) with new equally breathtaking material.