Review ©Matt Hoyne, reposted with kind permission by the author
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Striking a balance between the art of song writing and improvisation is an incredibly difficult thing to do. More often than not, the carefully crafted lyrics and melodies seem to work against the spontaneity and freedom of improvisation. Great songwriters will endlessly turn over the same phrase, painstakingly making slight adjustments to the rhythm, timbre and inflection until it sits just right. Improvising musicians can tend to be a bit slap-dash about the whole thing, writing tunes that leave lots of room for interpretation and input from the fellow musicians. Finding a successful middle ground between these opposing forces can be tricky. If you try to be too exact with how you want the parts to sound, the music and playing can start to feel a bit stifled and rigid. But on the other hand, if it’s too open you can run the risk of losing the sentiments of the lyrics and song, allowing the music to ramble on without a clear point or direction.
This is what makes a record like Hannah McKittrick’s Slippery such a rare gem! It manages to deftly tightrope walk through these slippery slopes (sorry I couldn’t help myself…) with great poise and artistry. All the performers play with lots of creativity but ultimately serve and honour the song first and foremost. You can hear the care that has gone into each track, how the melodies, chords and lyrics have been refined and polished through countless drafts. But it also feels open, free and communicative allowing the listener to enter the musical worlds, filled with exciting twists and turns.
Many a song has been written for a musician’s pet, but I think this album’s first track entitled Gertie Has a Special Collar for Special Occasions probably takes the cake for the best dog song of all time. Firstly, the name is just a ripper! But more importantly, the music seems to capture the special canine universe of simple bliss that only dogs are privy to. I love the hidden detail throughout; little overdubs here and there, slight changes in the groove, the Graceland-esque bass fills and the variations of phrasing in the vocals. But all of this detail never overcrowds what is ultimately a beautiful, simple song about one very happy dog. I dare you listen to this 5 times and not catch yourself singing “when she runs, her ears flop in the wind” for the rest of the day!
As the album plays on, each track feels like a world unto itself always managing to retain a consistent mood throughout. There is a stillness to this music that relishes in its slow tempos and brooding characters. Built around unfurling rhythmic/melodic cells that collide amongst the different parts, the tracks seem to blend into each other allowing the listener to fully enter into Slippery’s magical world. Songs like The Hour and Glacier leave a lot of space for the vocals to sit within the musical texture in a really exposed way. There is a vulnerability to the music, where one note slightly out of place would be terrifyingly obvious. In a sense, this makes it a really high stakes musical situation, with each note contributed to the texture playing a big role in the final sound. I can’t imagine what it must feel like as a vocalist to sing in this setting, with your tuning and pitch so apparent whilst still making choices about rhythm and phrasing on the fly – I get nervous just thinking about it! Luckily, Hannah is a total pro and has such a beautiful sound and style that you never have to worry.
Everything seems to culminate in the final track, Cheeks, in which as a listener, you feel like you’re eavesdropping on a deeply personal moment between two lovers. The song is seriously beautiful. Like, do yourself a favour and have to listen to this! Each sublimely blended chord in the Max Slorach saxophone quartet feels like you’re easing into a nice, warm bath while Hannah’s voice just fits so perfectly on top. It’s really intimate and you can hear the breath of the voice and the air passing through the saxophone being picked up by the mics. I could listen to this on repeat all day and not get sick of it. There’s this moment (4.21 in to be precise!) where, after the saxophone voices are increasingly active and melodic, everything lands together on this whopping C major triad. In any other context, this would be super-duper cheesy but for some reason, in this song and at that moment, it just feels so right. Every time I listen to it, it puts a big grin on my face and I can’t help but feel like it will do the same for you. Seriously, go and listen to this song! And while you’re at it, go straight to Bandcamp and buy the whole album.
You can (and should) buy Slippery on Bandcamp
You can find out more about Hannah’s music on Facebook here.
Photos from the session at Pughouse Studios Oct 2018