Reb Fountain – Self-titled (Flying Nun Records)
I first met Californian born Reb Fountain during her tour of her 2008 ‘Holster’ album when her bandmate Sam Prebble (also performing as Bond Street Bridge) introduced us at Blink’s wonderful Happy Bar in Wellington. That album still sits on my high rotation list, especially on road trips across the Desert Road. Her warm personality and dark song-writing were both spellbinding both on and off the stage. Back then she was content to hide shyly behind her guitar, remaining the quiet folkie. But when I caught up with her at WOMAD earlier this year it was clear that a transformation had occurred. She was still equally as charming and challenging, but her stage presence was considerably more confident. With long hair flailing about, intense eye engagement and strong physical movements she was every inch a ‘rock star’. She was like Stevie Nicks, Alanis Morrisette and Tori Amos all rolled into one.
It’s been a total pleasure watching Reb’s immense talent grow as a writer of slow wick burners, exceptionally well-crafted tiny kitchen sink dramas and torch songs draped in the ragged glories of 70’s Americana. And her career has gone in leaps and bounds. She’s recorded and performed with a host of talent including a team up with Lisa Tomlins to perform, record and tour Neil Finn’s ‘Out of Silence’ world tour; Backing Vocals for Tami Neilson; The Eastern; Don McGlashan; Marlon Williams and a long time-musical partnership with folk singer Steve Abel.
Her 2017 EP ‘Hopeful & Hopeless’, recorded at their favourite haunt, The Wine Cellar, made me cry. It has echoes from the ghost of Sam Prebble – a partner in music and beloved soulmate. Sam sadly took his life shortly after recording material on the record. Yet his presence can be clearly felt all over it.
The EP earned Reb Best Country Music Artist at the 2018 NZ Music Awards and the 2018 APRA AMCOS NZ Best Country Song award for the title number. The follow up album ‘Little Arrows’ was also a stunning sojourn down dusty roads, through battered trailer parks, seedy accommodations and abandoned riverbanks. Reb had cut her cloth it seemed, as a Country artist. Or had she?
Reb told me she’d booked a tour celebrating Nick Cave’s 60th birthday, tearing through 17 Cave songs in 90 minutes, and re-inventing beloved material from his songbook. It was a real sense of liberation from the hurt and angst of those times gave her permission to move on, creatively. Other projects around that time were attempts to move on, too.
And she has. With her new self-titled album. The title seems to re-introduce her to the world, as if this is a skin-shedding moment. But listening closely, this is really a more commercially acceptable, user-friendly version of the Reb Fountain we’ve come to know and love. And that’s not a bad thing.
The opening song, ‘Hawkes Doves’, feels like a regular Reb Fountain track. Written in one sitting, it has her usual melancholic expressionism, but also a certain urgency, like a journey that needs to be completed. It could be taken for a road song, beginning with David Lynch-like electronic chords. But clearly she announces that this album will be different. “Changes, I made some changes for the fickle and the wildin’ ones / I don’t wanna stand here and talk like this / Like it if you want to, like it if you want to, you can have it”, a declaration indeed.
There’s no doubt Reb’s channeling Patti Smith on the single ‘Samson’. The contrast between the commanding delivery of the spoken word lyrics and her sweet choruses fit so aptly with the lines “Tell me that you’re crazy like my love”. But it’s the lines buried at the end of this song that catch you off guard:
“Move on, find someone new, pick yourself up, start over / A thousand stars could come and go and we’d still be learning how to be / Courageous fools waking up to the dawn each day. When I drove so fast to reach you, I knew you’d be there.”
If you’re trying to understand the narrative, then don’t get too hung up on this stream-on-consciousness poetry. Although I’d definitely recommend you check out the visually dazzling video starring Medulla Oblongata, whose performance is utterly compelling.
‘It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane’ is the most poppy on this album. It’s a brilliant cry for freedom and reminds me of the final lines of Amanda Palmer’s ‘Delilah’ about a woman and her friend escaping an abusive relationship. The theme is right there: “It’s a bird, it’s a plane / Hands upon the wheel, let’s go for a ride / It’s a bird, it’s a plane / Girl, you know the deal when you step inside.” You know this about breaking free from something. In this Covid-cage we’re stuck in this is a perfect anthem. Thelma, are you drivin’ tonight? “No, Louise. You are!”
‘When Gods Lie’ is a stunning ballad, helped along by the Veils’ Finn Andrews. Finn and Reb met around the time of ‘Nux Vomica’ and have worked together for years, going back to their time in the UK working on tribute gigs for Bowie and projects for Skyscraper Stan, amongst others. Finn’s voice on this song adds the kind of gravitas that I thought only Nick Cave could bring. In fact, I had to check to see it wasn’t the old goth king himself that was secretly crooning away. It would seem highly appropriate on a song about failing rock idols. I love the way she’s twisted the clichés: “All of them stars were rocks, I couldn’t get off, so I just rolled down / Bought my ticket for the last train and you were there / In the tunnels, I close my eyes, and you’re all mine and I’m not scared.”
‘Faster’, despite the twangy guitars, feels like an old Leonard Cohen song, in its cadence, structure and phrasing. It was the first single to be released and was accompanied by this gorgeous, vintage-look video all shot on a Super 8 film camera by Lola Fountain-Best. “I chose Faster as a kind of bridge song,” Reb said in her press release, because “it was something that people might be more familiar with in terms of what I’ve done before. The other tracks on the new album are quite different.” Yes, they are. But that’s not a bad thing.
The most different is clearly ‘Don’t You Know Who I am?’. That song, in particular, is a brooding review of society, punctured by a range of scenarios and personalities. It reminds me of the sprawling narratives in Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars’ and Nick Cave’s ‘Higgs Bosson Blues’. The latter, especially clear in the repetitive singular recurring riff.
I initially thought that it was about the unseen people of the world, that we take for granted, but ignore. Reb says that she took inspiration from the story of Benjamin Chee Chee, who is a first nation artist from Canada. She used his art on her ‘Little Arrows’ album and even had a tattoo done of that artwork. For her the story’s moral is about who we all think we are, who we try to be, pretend we are. Sometimes we are afraid to reveal ourselves for fear of reprisals, scorn or hate. Chee Chee’s tale is common of many indigenous people. Untrusted, dismissed as drunks and troublemakers, dole bludgers, etc. Their worth reduced to a stereotype. “You put my tail in jail, is this place called Hell? Wheelin’ and dealin’ on a Saturday night / Caught between a calling and a stitched-up fight.” This is a song calling for recognition and respect. Live, it’s intense and almost violent. The album version holds back a little. Although, I don’t really know why.
On ‘Strangers’ Reb plays a character, sounding distant and spooky. That’s probably partly due to a haunting Theremin synth encircling the tune like a dark cloud. ‘Quiet Like The Rain’ is a perfect torch song, one that Reb owns with her sultry, world weary vocals.
My favourite tune is ‘The Last Word’ beginning with full and lush treatment. It gets that with the intro and outro full of big strings and swirling emotive chords. Reb starts with high notes, like the beginning of a musical number, before it breaks into a strumming cruising beat. With yet more darkness in the story and East-European note progressions it’s the kind new folk song Nick Cave could write. Only this is better. Her poetry is so wonderful, such rich imagery: “Up on the mount, you can see where I live / There is nothing to save me from the sea / We swam, we are seals, our skin thick as thieves / You promised me you’d never leave.”
‘Lighthouse’ closes the album. A simple piano anthem, with an impossibly infectious hook. This song is almost a hymn. Simple piano and bass guitar, delicately played, with Reb’s vocals dry and deep. I was a little disappointed that it didn’t break out into a full orchestra and choir arrangement. It certainly has the potential. NZSO, here’s your cue…
‘Reb Fountain’ was recorded at Neil Finn’s Roundhead Studios with engineer Simon Gooding back at the helm for their 3-week stint of recording and mixing alongside producer Dave Khan (the man behind Marlons Williams’ audio magic). Khan is all over this record, on guitars and keys but it’s clear from the way he treats Reb’s voice that he cherishes her performances, as she moves across a 3 octave range from the voice of deranged squeaky, little teen-girl popster to desert dry drawls to sexy and sultry and dark and cautionary. With ‘Don’t you know who I am’ I was especially reminded of Tori Amos’ character voices on her gender switching covers album ‘Strange Little Girls’. This technique messes with your expectations so deliciously, it catches you off guard and forces you to look deeper into the lyrics. It’s something Khan encourages on several songs and that really works.
The band do a great job supporting Reb, honouring every song but not standing out of over-reaching. They are in their own way a dream team – Ben Woolley (Yarra Benders), drummer Logan Compain, Finn Andrews, Elroy Finn and engineer Chris Chetland (owner of Kog Studios) on the mastering.
This might be Reb Fountain’s most commercial work but it’s also her best. It shimmers with stunning tunes, and some deliciously intense performances. I gave this album to a friend, who’d never heard of Reb prior to this. She sums it up best: “I loved her darkness and her light. Every tune was better than the last and was disappointed when they finished all too soon. I wanted more. When is she performing live? I’ll be there!”
First published at www.ambientlight.co.nz