Reb Fountain returns with an album inspired by the gods and myths from Greek Classics, the perfect sequel to her stunning self-titled album.
A voyage to Siren’s cove – deep water brooding, catchy, with hooks and barbs that will reel you in – and hang your soul out to dry.
Already there’s been a lot of press about Reb Fountain’s upcoming new album, IRIS. It really is the perfect extension of her phenomenally successful self-titled disc, which came out last year, right in the middle of you know what.
‘Reb Fountain’ was released on Flying Nun Records to much critical acclaim and scooped up the 2021 Taite Music Prize, was shortlisted for a Silver Scroll award (‘Don’t You Know Who I Am’), and had no less than 5 nominations at last year’s New Zealand Music Awards. All thoroughly deserved. Given all that, the expectations on ‘IRIS’ have now increased exponentially.
Her trademark poetic noir folk-punk sound is unmistakable and remains fearless, weaving the authentic and the anthemic. But ‘IRIS’ is no departure in style of substance from the previous. On the contrary, it feels more like a second disc – sides 3 & 4 – of its predecessor. And that works a treat!
A consummate tourist, it seems we’ve hardly had time to miss her. And already she’s dropped 5 singles from the album – ‘Lacuna’, ‘Heart’, ‘Beastie’ and ‘Foxbright’, plus the title track. There won’t be much to surprise us when it finally releases in its entirety on 1 October. Like many stranded artists Reb kept herself busy over the lockdowns. Not only did she plough her energies into a pay it forward venue support campaign, but she also found time to productively compose – and at pace. She’s said online that she got into “writing a song a day to keep myself grounded and productive during lockdown. IRIS provided me an opportunity to speak my unspoken, to reflect what I have seen and experienced from within and to bear witness.”
Her struggles with depression, addiction, drinking and self-harm have recently been documented and given the return to lockdown recently, you have to wonder how much resilience a performer needs when looking into the abyss of than unknown future. The arts have had it pretty hard over the last year and a half. She would be easily forgiven had it sent her down another downward spiral. However, Reb chose instead to wake up and deal with it. She’s done rehab, health kicks and diets, therapy. But for her, she says, it’s working everyday to be free from those demons. Turning every action into a positive, a productive force. In these songs you can definitely hear her analysing those positions and choosing the directions to be taken.
Diving into the deeper meaning of the album’s namesake, Reb says, “Iris is in many ways an unsung hero, known as the goddess of the rainbow, sea and sky, she acts as bridge between the gods to humanity with little of her own story known. So many stories go unheard, so many aspects of our humanity are unsung; visibility is a contested and inequitable space where what is essential, and of beauty, is often ‘invisible’. I wanted and needed to give voice to this essential human spirit; to conjure and hold and commune with the very real, valid and invaluable voices within and around me.”
The album begins with a familiar groove. ‘Psyche’ (goddess of the soul, no less) has that slow, smouldering drama that she’d created with ‘Don’t You Know Who I Am?’ – a mix of sung and half sung poetry, with references to early explorers, astrological navigation and a search for identity. The song completes with a carefully constructed hook provided by a repeating bass line overlaid by strings, creating a slightly ‘Victorian’ theme. I’m not sure if it was intentional but my imagination drifted off into Eli Catton’s pioneer nightmares in ‘The Luminaries’.
‘Foxbright’ is a mesmerizing slow-burning track that opens up space for some of Reb’s own delicate piano playing, some acoustic guitars and the clear and present voices of a brooding string section. The tenderly treated production feels like a live performance. Perhaps all that is needed is a little bit more lifting of the flat ‘balance’ so the instruments are more separated in the mix.
She says on her website that that after releasing her self-titled album from the confines of her home last year she’d never imagined that she be here again, doing this all over again. “Yet here we are,” she writes, “I wrote ‘Foxbright’ in our last lockdown and sharing it with you feels especially prescient right now.” This is about hiding under the covers until the world is safe again.
The burrow, she explains, is that safe space that we all run to when caught in the ‘headlights’. When faced with the impossible, we hibernate. The song covers so much ground – from terrorist shootings to Trump’s American nihilism to Covid. “The mosque lamp is where I leave my love for you should I be hiding. Foxbright is who we are in the face of it all.”
But there’s optimism in this song, too. It tells us that love can be found anywhere, even when we’ve given up looking. And we’ve all been doing plenty of hiding lately, avoiding the headlights, avoiding the world. Lola Fountain-Best and Reb have created the stark landscape that appears in the song’s accompanying video – an obvious comment on the current state of play. On screen, Reb performs inside a re-imagined blanket fort with distorted 1950’s industrial film footage projected onto her body using a borrowed 16mm film projector.
There’s more theatre to be had on the brooding ‘Invisible Man’, which is a more clear-cut love-loss song. In this one, she’s talking to a lover – or friend – that’s absent from her life. ‘Do I disappear when you are not here?’, she’s asking. It’s a question of identity and grounding. Again, with our Covid lens, we have to ask – how complete are we, when we must be separated from friends, lovers, acquaintances, whānau?
‘Heart’ was the first single to be released. It’s classic Reb. Romantic, discombobulated, messy and full of swagger. It’s also deliciously catchy and hook laden. It’s a beguiling, ethereal alt-pop-folk take on the agonies of unrequited love, blended with Greek mythology. Nick Cave fans will see the resemblances to his ‘Lyre of Orpheus’ album.
Her theme is “longing; the great exodus of connection and the echoes of yearning left behind, reverberating through space, time and our hearts, as we fell together and apart….They say as long as Orpheus sings he breathes life into death; that, in the most challenging of times, we too have the opportunity for rebirth.”
So ‘Heart’ becomes a love song but not one with a ‘happily ever after’. She borrows heavily from the myth. Orpheus is held by heart strings (from his instrument) and in an attempt to share it with his potential lover, Eurydice, loses her for ever. This common theme is always with us, as we are scared to tell anther how we feel, for fear of putting them off for good.
‘Lacuna’ is a title with many meanings. “What a way to start / kisses in the dark”, she says: “There is strong loyalty to the secret; the social contract which binds us to the burden of the unsaid. The tension between devotion to the lie – masquerading as protection – and the desire to protect oneself, can render us absent to even the starkest of realities. “
The track chugs along with an infectious, swirling desert rock blues riff, overlaid with some ‘Doors’ style psychedelic Rhodes organ. Perhaps the intention was slightly confessional, with a need to reveal the secrets behind those “kisses in the dark”. Strictly speaking a ‘lacuna’ refers to an unfilled space or a gap, as in knowledge or a longing or unfulfilled desire. Its anatomical definition is a ‘cavity’, bone deep. Thick phased guitars are layered like an unspoken guilt for an unbreakable love bond and the need to remain free from commitment. If you’ve ever seen Reb on stage, you can imagine her swathed in red lights, long hair flaying, in full rock-witch mode concocting her deadly love potion of emotion and conflictions.
A complete contrast is ‘Beastie’. Reb asks us to look to our own flaws and the ‘monstrous truths’ we all secret away. With swaggering, sexy bass with almost raunchy guitar licks from bandmates Dave Khan and Karin Canzek it reveals the real intentions of the song, which are far darker. We can’t push aside the evils of our ‘shameful past’, she’s saying. We need to confront it, especially when past actions have defined who we are today.
This is Reb’s own ‘Higgs Bosun Blues’. A comment on our times. And she’s asking challenging questions. She references the murder of Botham Jean, killed in his home by a racist Dallas cop; talks of mass incarceration and revelations of systemic racism both in the criminal justice system both in the US and here; weeps for the victims of the Christchurch mosque shooting; considers the contradiction between male role models like the All Blacks and those men who commit violence against women; and then considers the phrase ‘Is That Us’? “Is this who we want to be?” she wants to know, “Can we collectively agree this is us? I wanted to consider it all …”
”I wanted to explore and disrupt tales and tropes that separate ‘others’ from our ‘selves’. It’s easy to relegate evils to the ‘shameful past’; harder to confront our own current inhumanity, especially if one’s identity comes with benefits or losses. I wanted my eyes open and to speak in solidarity with resistance . . . and to give folks a chance to join in chorus.”
In another video made by Lola Fountain-Best, Khan, Canzek and the band’s drummer Earl Robertson appear, looking slightly disturbed, as Reb dances in an almost mocking fashion. You wonder if this is a take-off of Christopher Walken’s Frankenstein-swagger in Fat Boy Slim’s ‘Weapon Of Choice’ video. In Reb’s video the band appear as denying entities, cheating at cards, trying to act like wolves in a pile of soft toys or staring at her blankly, as if to say “what are you talking about?” when she asks “Is That Us?” Because, she’s saying, “in the absence of resistance we are complicit. – rather than revert to a destructive default, I want to make a conscious choice for equity, justice, community, and love.”
If you say nothing, nothing at all, nothing comes to light.
More nods to the Bad Seeds can be found on the righteous ‘Fisherman’, with its thinly veiled religious lyrical overtones (‘walking on water’, ‘hold back the tide’), dramatic catch and release structures and haunting violins. In contrast there’s a modern sea shanty lament to the fate of the Titantic on ‘Swim To The Stars’ “dark water”, she sings in soft melancholy, “the show goes on, cry out to the water, we’re going down…”
The album finishes with the title track, ‘Iris’. A soft, smooth ballad, with a high-pitched chorus hook that blends down into more brooding violin strains. The bridge is more upbeat, ascending, like a return from down under back to the surface.
Reb is once again bringing in ancient gods, this time Iris – one of the goddesses of the sea and the sky. There are many meanings in this song. Iris links the gods to humanity, traveling with the speed of wind from one end of the known world to the other, and then into the depths of the sea – and finally into the underworld. Iris is the heart of the eye, seeing all, even when things aren’t acknowledged. A memory of the ‘invisible’.
There is so much more to enjoy on this multi layered album. Clearly Reb has been spending time with the classics and drawing parallels with our modern times. That’s not hard to do, given the everyday news features floods, disease, plagues, pestilence and war. And kindness, love, a longing for connection. Fertile grounds for a songwriter indeed.
The more you listen, the more you hear. In conclusion, this is yet another step up for Reb Fountain, proving she is definitely one of our most present and important writers on the music scene right now.
Originally featured in www.ambientlightblog.com/album-review-reb-fountain-iris/