Maz O’Connor’s new album, The Longing Kind, is the singer/songwriter’s first album of entirely original material and, in her own words, “it’s about longing, belonging, home and the confusions of youth”. Her lyrics reflect these themes and consolidate the literate, intelligent yet accessible songwriting that was one of the great strengths of her previous record, 2014’s This Willowed Light. This new focus has imbued her writing with many insights into the human condition, while the music has progressed by leaps and bounds. Retaining many of the core musicians who contributed to This Willowed Light and re-enlisting Jim Moray as producer has undoubtedly helped to shape the overall result but it’s Maz’ own individuality that shines through from start to finish.
The PR notes mention that the record is “ordered like a three-act play”, beginning with songs that capture the first uncertain steps into the big wide world then moving to imagined stories based on the subjects of particular paintings before returning to considerations of the real world with “a newfound clarity, a redefined sense of self and of arriving home”. This is no 1970s-style grand concept album, though: my own lack of formal education meant that many of the references in the middle section completely passed me by – proof positive, I think, of just how easy the album is to listen to regardless, and a sizeable achievement by Maz and her co-contributors.
The album opens gently with ‘Intro’, a short instrumental moodsetter with the sound of instruments waking – random pecussion bumps and scrapes as a harmonium drone sets the tone with Beth Porter’s cello stepping up and setting us off into ‘The Longing Kind’. Maz’ confident fingerpicked acoustic guitar and easy swooping voice tells of looking forward to better days. Matt Downer’s double bass is the sound of plunging into a cold mountain pool while Chris Hillman’s pedal steel delicately underpins the lyric with its distant keening telling of the bittersweet yearning to move on. A great start to the album, one of my favourite tracks and a recent Folk Radio UK Song of the Day to boot!
Picking its way with aplomb through some deceptively simple yet complex chord modulations, ‘A Winter’s Blues’ is situated perfectly between its traditional influences and a thoroughly contemporary sound. Maz’ voice soars and floats high and clear, miles above Matt’s warm and rumbling bass while her guitar, subtly treated with a hint of electronic effects, occupies the middle ground with the clarity of crystal glass.
‘Crook of His Arm’ is the first tune on the record to feature a full band arrangement and as such, makes the point that a well-written song will stand a more fleshed-out arrangement without sacrificing its essence. Jim displays his hitherto unknown skills as a percussionist of taste and economy, while Matt’s bass holds down the bottom end with similar precision. The guitar riff sways gently yet insistently as if rocking a baby to sleep while the chorus harmonies are uplifiting. Beth and Chris both get a chance to shine with tasty and tasteful solos on cello and pedal steel respectively. Add in a quietly burning anger in the lyrics and this is one song which pretty much epitomises all that is good about the current vogue for Americana; a real highlight.
A more traditional folk feel permeates ‘Mother Make My Bed’, an uptempo, fast-strummed arrangement with a solid four-square bass. Nick Malcolm’s multi-tracked trumpet hints at the northern English roots which have inspired so much great contemporary folk music in recent times. The massed voices on the choruses suggest that this may make a great audience participation number in a live set, before it all dissolves into an atmospheric, soft-focus coda; Jim’s Hammond organ fading away as Maz’ harmonium provides a hazy backdrop for Beth and Nick to add in hints of the melody as Maz draws it to a close in a cloud of multi-tracked wordless singing.
‘The Greenwood Side’ follows on so closely that it’s almost a segue, although the arrangement of this more reflective, minor key song is quite a contrast. It’s another full-band arrangement and, while it’s lyrically quite intense, drawing on some very traditional folkloric themes, it never loses its focus; the interplay between the razor-sharp lead guitar and the more rounded string parts is quietly stunning. Mostly, though, this is a real showcase of how much Maz’ singing has bloomed in the time since This Willowed Light and suggests that she’s really coming into her own as the singer of range, depth and emotive power hinted at on that previous record.
Woven around a simple piano part with accompaniment from Beth’s cello, the lyrics to ‘Emma’ tell a tale of misgivings about a love gone bad. It’s an introspective composition but the sparseness of its arrangement is well judged, giving Maz the space to get the song across with just the right amount of musical support.
As its title suggests, ‘Jane Grey’ takes a look at the story of the 16th century noblewoman who found herself briefly elevated to the rank of Queen of England. Unfortunately for her, Parliament wasn’t best pleased about this and revoked her proclamation in double-quick time, declaring Mary I the rightful queen instead and triggering a series of events that culminated in Jane’s beheading at the tender age of sixteen. Cello, double bass and harmonium provide a decorous and respectful soundtrack to Maz’ acoustic guitar, her haunting vocals telling Jane’s sad tale from a first-person perspective.
Built around a lengthy descending unison sequence on a fast-strummed acoustic guitar and bass with some nice trumpet embellishments and close vocal harmonies, ‘Billy Waters’ finds Maz paying credit to a fellow musician, perhaps a busker, from the point of view of another travelling musician. The lyric’s references to the sea are particularly evocative in this uptempo look back at lives lived and personal journeys undertaken. The song’s slower coda offers a dreamlike moment of repose and another almost-segue, paving the way for ‘Coming Back Around’ although its production is in sharp contrast. Maz’ vocals are upfront, almost ‘dry’ with minimal (if any) reverb or other enhancement and the effect is as gripping as it is welcome; Maz really is a fine singer and it’s a pleasure to be able to hear her voice with such clarity. Another favourite moment from an album which brims with them.
In places reminiscent of the 1970s glory days of folk-rock, ‘A Quiet Word’ has an endearing sway and swagger, syncopated mandolins and massed vocals highlighting the lyric’s optimistic and affectionate declaration of friendship; the turnaround in the last line of the chorus is particularly effective.
‘A Rose’ again demonstrates Maz’ burgeoning vocal confidence; true and clear, her almost offhand dropping in of ‘blue notes’ is ear-catching and a good fit for the lyric, which I think references the Wars Of The Roses. Beth’s cello and Matt’s double bass are as much part and parcel of the arrangement as Maz’ understated fingerstyle guitar, while the wordless vocal harmonies add the ideal finishing touch. The last twenty seconds or so are both coda and introduction to the closing song, ‘When the Whisky Runs Dry’. A suitably raucous farewell, it features the whole band and, despite the retrospective melancholy of the lyrics, has more than enough changes and movement to send the listener out to face the world; its chorus earworming into her mind, putting a smile on her face and a skip in her step. What a way to go!
The Longing Kind is a milestone record, both in terms of encapsulating Maz O’Connor’s recent personal journey and offering tantalising views of potential new directions on her musical road ahead. A cohesive and highly listenable collection of songs by one of the British folk scene’s rising stars and recommended to anyone looking for an insight into what makes a great contemporary folk record.
Review by: Helen Gregory
Maz is currently on tour in the UK and soon heads off to Germany and The Netherlands before returning on 17th March.
Thur 25 Feb – SHEFFIELD, Greystones
Thur 17 March – BATH, Chapel Arts Centre
For details of her dates in Germany and the Netherlands click here.
The Longing Kind is released 26th February 2016
Order the album, along with some other great goodies via: Maz O’Connor’s store here