Review: Gemma Hayes’ “The Hollow of Morning”

Oct 8, 2008 11:56am

  Back in 2003, Gemma Hayes wowed me with her debut, “Night on My Side.”  Combining an intimate, appealing songwriting style with occasional washes of atmospheric shoegazer guitar, she crafted something truly extraordinary.  In 2005, the Irish singer released a follow-up, “The Roads Don’t Love You,” which is just about impossible to find in the States unless you are willing to shell out the cash for an import.  So, “The Hollow of Morning” is Hayes’ third proper album and her second to see wide U.S. release.  Does it hold up to the standard set by “Night on My Side?”  I would say yes, even though it is a much quieter record.  Before, what made Hayes stand out was her stylistic approach.  Here, the focus is more on the songs themselves.  In this brief, ten-track, thirty-six-minute cycle, Hayes demonstrates that she can easily make lightning strike twice.  “This Is What You Do” opens the record, setting a soft, acoustic tone.  Fitting with the mood set by the album’s name, Hayes sings in a whispery rasp as if she has just awakened from a deep slumber.  The setting is moody and deceptively intricate as she sings, “Trying to find a little chaos in the order. / Now I take a bus-ride past your house everyday. / You never fully leave me but you, / You never fully stay. / This is what you do to me.”  The song is as haunting as Hayes’ ghost of this past relationship.  Simultaneously there are feelings of warmth of past memories put down over this wintry backdrop, as if to acknowledge the cold reality of solitude.   As the song progresses, it gets increasingly atmospheric and echo-drenched as Hayes pleads, “Come on, smile, smile.”  Is she talking to herself or someone else?  Hard to tell, but it’s moving nonetheless.  “Out Of Our Hands” begins with the very familiar hard-edged shoegaze-meets-acoustic sound previously heard on “Night On My Side.”  A highly textural introduction gives way to quieter verses as Hayes sings this single-ready song. It builds and recedes for positive effect.  Hayes throws in dark lines like “I’m sorry if I let you think better of me.”  Keyboards and a handclap-ready beat make sure that the song sticks with you. “January 14th” is a brief, acoustic number in the form of a letter.  “Your dogs are acting crazy, we can’t figure out why, / And me, well I’m thinking of you all the time. / Write soon.”  Hayes sets a scene of isolation and longing quite well. “Home” has an atmospheric hum beneath it as it grows.  This sounds very much like it could’ve been on “Night On My Side.” It builds layers of texture over Hayes’ hushed delivery.  Again, a feeling of isolation is present, in the song’s tone. Again there’s a sense of longing.  She sings, “This is home, your face is home.”  Home is where you go when you feel the most alone.  It’s a place of your own.  It’s a place to reconnect. It’s a place many people search for all their lives.  “In Over My Head” begins with church bells.  A stark verse section gives way to a warmer sounding chorus.  The beat marches on as if to convey tension.  Again, like much of Hayes’ work, the track builds somewhat hypnotically. You almost feel like you could drown in the sound as it reaches its apex.  Notably, the track features guitar work from shoegaze legend and My Bloody Valentine mastermind, Kevin Shields. “Chasing Dragons” finds Hayes alone, singing on top of her own acoustic guitar.  Her lyrics are dark as she sings “The morning has no sympathy, / It just screams across the room / Making light of everything and taking you.”  Later she sings, “Go chase your dragons and I’ll chase mine.”  Lyrically, this is one of Hayes’ strongest pieces of work because it really does accurately convey a feeling and set a rather unpleasant scene full of turmoil. “Don’t Forget” is another potential single, making use of Hayes’ signature formula.  It sounds brighter than the rest of the album as she sings, “Don’t forget yourself so soon.”  Self-preservation and coping with loss seem to be recurring themes. “Sad Old Song” is mostly true to its title.  Backed by a minimalist background with another atmospheric layer of ambient sound, Hayes manages to sing a sad, haunting song about another sad, haunting song.  “At Constant Speed” again finds Hayes taking a soft melody and fleshing it out as the instrumentation slowly swells beneath her.  The song makes good use of some slightly electronic touches.  About four-and-a-half minutes in, there’s a particularly appealing keyboard line.  “I’m beginning to forget you.”  She sings, repeatedly.  Taken in combination with “Don’t Forget” the lesson here must be that she wants to forget him, but not forget who she really is.  Is this a breakup record?  My guess is yes.  It’s a stellar one, at that.  The album ends with the brief acoustic instrumental, “Under A Canopy.” It possesses the same grave feeling present throughout the record; only without Hayes’ vocals it feels even more morose. It also serves as a sort of closing theme.  “The Hollow of Morning” is a powerful album.  It pays to listen to it closely.  Sonically and lyrically it has a lot to offer.  It’s seems simple at first but it’s quite complex, thus passive listening won’t do.  This record has depth which demands exploration.  Like “Night on My Side” before it, this album shows that Gemma Hayes is a singer worthy of your attention.    

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