Amy Duncan - Cycles of Life -

Our flash drive lives are so utterly cluttered now with distracting details, useless information and false trails that it's not hard to feel that truth and beauty are becoming ever rarer commodities. When day is done and people are much too much to take, you might just long for a beautiful recording of a clean, clear voice picking its way very precisely along a melodic path of its own creation. Sue me if I'm wrong.

Amy Duncan takes careful footsteps and covers only as much distance as the song requires. On her latest album, Cycles of Life, her meticulous economy is matched by elegant refinement and comes kitemarked with all the qualities we have come to expect from Linn Records.

Duncan's songs are, upon first inspection, delicate pieces of Point Duchesse, more to be admired for their pattern and handiwork than high colour and full-blooded emotion. But listen closely and you will detect a thinly veiled intensity and a slightly unnerving directness in the lyric. These are stories of life's challenges that have to be thought through, considered and, wherever possible, resolved.

There is also a self-knowledge in her music that harnesses cloaked passions and keeps them on a short rein. Indeed, she gazes out from her own cover photograph with something more than self-confidence and something slightly less than an open invitation. With Amy Duncan you are always going to have to come half way.

The songs have stillness on the surface but a disturbing undertow in their depths, and it's often only a single word or a turn of phrase that illuminates the meaning and intent that lies beneath.

Contemporary folk music is still frustratingly thought of as a set of simple sentiments softly sung. These days, complexity comes as standard and it's woven into the flaxen material of the folk tradition. Duncan's skill is to suggest that the song is simple when really it's almost mathematically impossible. Notes are improbably stretched, tensions wound agonizingly tight and three dimensions are expressed with the unlikely strength of an elaborate box kite made of balsa and brown paper.
I have to say that I was reminded at times of the Ice Maiden of Reykjavík sans the certifiable elements of her vocal eccentricities, particularly on This Fleeting Moment and Wild Animals. Happily, Duncan dispenses with the theatrical and deals only with the restrained Ibsenesque drama of these compelling conversation pieces. Her voice effectively finds some unexpected notes and they are not included merely for effect. The tunes are aural pastels of an island beach after the tourists are gone, or solitary hours in the summerhouse by the loch. Any place where you can hear yourself think.

Am I hearing things? Well, yes, of course I am. That's the whole object of the exercise and that brings me finally to the point. Cycles of Life is essentially a solitary experience as a listening pleasure on this superb recording. The songs will be shared in performance for sure, but honestly, you will want to keep them for yourself in treasured moments of solitude far removed from trifling things when the internet is down.

There are no indifferent tracks on this album. It is balanced like a unicyclist on a tightrope across Niagra Falls. Anyone who likes good songs will find something of real beauty here, but I imagine that each of us will alight on something different because each tune is so finely nuanced. I especially liked When the Dead Are Watching, Your Very Soul, Crack in the World, Navigating and the title track Cycles of Life. Those are my choices, now go and listen and make your own. It will be your treat to yourself.
26 April 2013