As with its 2013 predecessor, Makeweight, this eponymous second full-length release from Montréal’s chamber-folk specialists Heirloom boasts eight songs, clocking in at around the half-hour mark. Depending on the genre and content there are occasions when shorter albums leave me feeling frustratingly shortchanged, but not in these cases. The skillful sequencing and emotionally engaging lushness of Heirloom’s sound ensure that these compact offerings are sufficient for rounded and gratifying listening experiences. Indeed, that the narrative flow of this new album is parenthesised by tracks entitled Prologue and Epilogue serves to underline this fact.
Founded in 2011 by classically trained pianist Lisa Malachowski, the six-piece Heirloom’s first release the following year was the four-song, alt. country-tinged EP, The Lexicon of Accepted Ideas. It is a charming, wistful debut that oozes class, all qualities that have remained very much intact throughout the hour of gorgeous music they have released since.
This is intimate and delicate stuff, sometimes melancholy and others impish, with spotlights trained on Malachowski’s soft vocal and the beautiful neo-classical flourishes of all concerned. It sounds both baroque and contemporary at once, drawing the listener in to hang on every note, reminding me mood-wise of early Leonard Cohen and Sufjan Stevens’ more reflective, personal acoustic material. Tellingly, both artists are cited as influences on Heirloom.
As someone who grew up exposed to a lot of classical music and prog-rock I am a committed supporter of bands of any musical persuasion that employ classical instrumentation and ambitious arrangements, thereby appreciating the ilk of Lost in the Trees, San Fermin, Mother Falcon and The Family Crest. Yet, although free of the glorious pomp often pervading such music, Heirloom should certainly appeal to fans of these acts, as they share an undoubted kinship in compositional approach: all pay homage to classical music as a foundation for something new and fresh.
With a voice slotting somewhere in between Laura Veirs, Jessica Pratt and Joanna Newsom (circa Have One on Me), Malachowski delivers her intriguing lyrics with breathy innocence. According to Malachowski, Heirloom presents “a bunch of little stories all woven together throughout the album, often even within the same song.” And despite the overall prettiness of the music, an unexpected, mildly unsettling lyrical image occasionally pops up, such as in Old Song in which, over Corinna Rose’s banjo, Malachowski sings, I asked you a question / You did not say a thing / I punched you in the side of the head / I made you sing. Then within the lyrical collage of the following, multi-movement Lullaby, murder ballad tradition appears to be observed with the lines, If you settle down, don’t forget me / I’m still buried in the ground / Behind your favourite apple tree.
Malachowski reveals that her lyrical inspirations are drawn from many sources, and that she wants listeners to draw their own conclusions, find their own stories therein, or simply fill in the blanks:
“Sometimes I will be inspired by events that happen in my real life, but it’s never like this song is about this person or event. That’s too simple. I’d rather people make their own interpretations about what our songs are about. Plus, I don’t even know if the songs are about any one thing, and the meaning changes over time, even for me.”
Two years in the making, this impeccable new Heirloom offering sees the band further fine tune a sound that pretty much arrived fully formed with the debut EP. Subtle sonic evolution since its release has brought Heirloom to a special place, from where their star should surely rise from hereon in. Malachowski says that the band’s approach to their craft is “meticulous” and “a lot of work,” but it has not stemmed their prolificacy with twenty hushed gems delivered over three releases in as many years. The evidence of Heirloom’s painstaking working practices is available in all its glory, then, for all who care to listen, and that would include me.
Review by: David Morrison
Heirloom is out now
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Photo credit: Megan Mericle