Review – French For Rabbits – The Overflow ( AllGood Absolute Alternative Records Ltd.)

The latest album from Wellington folk/pop crew is the perfect tribute to the glory of being an introvert, homebody or wallflower. Forget lockdowns.  Stay inside, put the kettle on and crank up your headphones.

In ‘normal’ times, we’d all be crammed into a bar or club to celebrate with the band as they played through their new album.  But these are not normal times.  Touring is not really possible right now.  So, a low key launch party at the studio was the best option – albeit a very different experience.  It reminded me of those secret affairs, popular in the 70’s and 80’s, where a choice few influencers crammed into a record exec’s office to hear to hear the music before it was released to the world.  Not quite the big Record Company experience.  But, indeed, a small group of us, cushions and chippies in hand, congregated at The Surgery (where The Black Seeds, L.A.B, etc. have made their classic albums), to hear French For Rabbit’s third album, ‘The Overflow’.  We listened carefully, as it was intended, over the monitors of none other than magic maestro producer ‘Dr’ Lee Prebble while the album’s producer Jol Mulholland beamed in over Zoom from behind Auckland’s borderline.   

Brooke told us that Mulholland was brought in to co-produce this album with her, Ben Lemi and the band.  They recorded a large chunk of the album here at the Surgery back in February last year. with some songs being in the cache for years and others, like ‘Passengers’, freshly minted merely a day before taping.

They wanted a real progression from past albums – grittier, bolder, more lush in places.  There’s definitely a big shift from their last album, “The Weight Of Melted Snow’ and you can definitely hear it all over this disc.  Mulholland was able to bring layers to Brooke’s voice that have a long and lingering quality, hovering between the day and the night, the light and the dark.

Brooke Singer Surgery Studios, Newtown. Photo – Tim Gruar

Their previous album had more serious overtones, reflecting where they were mentally and sonically at the time.  Stylistically, this album is clearly more ‘dream pop’.  It opens with bright optimism mixed with subtle hints of self-awareness and blends into more cerebral journeys as it unfolds – like spending an evening with a glass of wine and a good book, becoming more involved as the night wears on.  

The mystic, ethereal murky sounds of earlier works have been sharpened, thanks to Mulholland.  But it’s Brooke Singer who has grown vocally and lyrically stronger.  A change of subjects, too.  The environmental politics that the band flirted with previously have taken a backseat to be driven by elements that are more emotively human.  This is the album that celebrates the introvert and the insular.

“The Overflow, where it all gets too much – it’s a just a river of currents” croons Brooke Singer on the opener, title track and first single, “And I’m afraid I’ll lose you all the time” sets the tone and theme of this fabulously unapologetic glorification of wallflowers and introverts.  That song feels brighter and more outwardly open than previous FFR numbers.  Less dark, the clouds have dissipated, yet the subject matter still remains a little negative. 

That song, I learned, came from a co-writing experience in America.  The different ‘ears’ have certainly added more pop-colour to the palette.

The same treatment is applied to the third single ‘Ouija Board’, again upbeat but housing such fabulous juxtapositions such as “Damn My Soul, It’s got so very low. There’s no where to go but up”, “I’ve backed into the corner to be free”; and “There’s no going back. The hatchet’s been unpacked.” 

Clearly, the baggage of this soured relationship has been tossed into the suitcases and are waiting at the door for the taxi to arrive. This is an ongoing theme.  The lingering spirits of dissolved affairs remain in the air. 

There is a theme of disposition, which rides on the back of these harmonies like disembodied souls looking for a home. The wondrous hypnotics of the sound is far from the original folk weave that Brooke had initially penned, she tells me, but the production is more commercially fulfilling at the end of the day.    

I like the techno-folk groove of ‘Passengers’, which has a presence not unlike something you’d find on a Lorde album.  Bright, sophisticated, yet still a little brooding, too.  The meaning of the song seems interchangeable and could be applied to any number of contemporary issues.  Given this album was made last year, it would be hard not to find some touch points coming through from our year of Covid hell: “Will you remind us of the reason for kindness, because lately it seems more of a game.”

The message of the destructiveness of social media is clear.  Listening today, those lines seem to scream out as we watch the news of anti-vaxers protesting on the steps of parliament shouting the bizarre and confused messages.  “Where is your moral, while you are leading the quarrel?… We are just passengers, while you are taking your photographs, flashing your teeth while we go over the edge”. 

As she sings, Brooke recommends some self awareness “Take a little mirror and make a little clearer”.  To thy self be true? There’s something nihilistic about her lines, as if it’s an inevitable that we’ll be sucked in over the edge.  “We are passengers in this tragedy.” Do we remain too addicted to turn our phones off? 

By far the best song on this album is ‘The Outsider’ (written is LA on a writing trip with Brooke Johnson and Marc Odell).  It sums up the introvert them so perfectly.  If you’ve seen Martin Sagadin’s video (featuring Brooke hiding as a white ghost sheet hovering awkwardly about the society fringes), then you’ll relate to those times when we just don’t fit in.  We feel like ghosts, transparent, ignored or shunned for something unexplained but reviled.  “I’m here but I’m not alone in this room, feel like a ghost I be scared of me, too.”

The song is informed by a real experience when Brooke went to L.A. by herself and was invited to a party with Radiohead, not really knowing anyone, feeling very small in a large pond.  “I’m on the edge, reading my phone, So maybe I’ll fee like I’m not alone.” 

It also reminds me of lines from The Smith’s ‘How Soon Is Now’ with the protagonist going to a Club only to stand on their own and eventually go home – alone. 

Brooke builds her case of shy, self-imposed alienation layer upon layer, and you can’t help feeling sorry for her – or the character she speaks for.  You can’t help feeling her pain and just want to reach out and wrap her in a big hug, tell her it’ll all be ‘ok’.

FFR embrace the awkwardness, however.  On their website you can take “The Outsider Quiz”, to determine if you really are an introvert.  Applicants answer questions about their bookishness, preferences for quiet dark spaces (especially in public), Halloween costumes (full body covering preferred), favourite tipple (tea or cocktails), all in order to determine what kind of Ghost you are.  Apparently, I’m a ‘Dance Alone In Your Room Ghost’.  Who knew?

‘The Dark Arts’ has a particularly lush treatment to it.  The video creates a kind of chamber of contemplative solitude to consider the theme.  The subject alone in a high vaulted church or public hall, dancing in reminiscence.  “A barnacle shell, and a half-used film, marrow of a bone, and a picture I drew.”  Objects store meaning, even when broken or roughed up.  It’s difficult to let go of them.  Brooke lists items she has hoarded, unwilling to let go: “Broken pieces, I don’t have to keep them, to swept them off in circles, display them round my living room.  To love them is to know how it feels to be lost and to be left.” 

Most recently, Martin Sagadin and Julian Vares’ Canterbury cinematic video ‘Walk the Desert’ came out, with Brooke bouncing around Waikuku Beach in a ‘Victorian’ sailor suit.  It offers further celebration of the introvert spirit and a bit of defiance to the constantly ‘on’ expectations we all have: “Always be the one who says I’m fine/ rather walk the desert home.”

‘The Money or The Bag’, with it’s distinct tinge of Kiwiana nostalgia, was also written in America.  Brooke told me she’d seen the iconic show when she was very young but was surprised to find that the expression was completely unknown outside Aotearoa.  It was one of those colloquialisms you carry around with you when travelling.

Then there’s the frantic 80’s synth pop energy of ‘Poetry Girl’ with lashings of layered vocal overdubs from Brooke.   To offset that one we get the fast waltz in the tempo of ‘Nothing In My Hands’ which hangs together by the thread of a repeating note on Brooke’s keyboard.  The lyrics are, once again deep and ironic. 

The haunting, drifting closer ‘Middle of the House’ was a collaboration with Mulholland and Alexander Biggs, written at a song-writers camp in Australia a couple of years ago. Brooke tells me that she worked hard in the studio with Jol to get that ‘roar’ of the Canterbury Nor’wester into the bones of the song.  The house mentioned is both real and imagined, inspired, in part by learning that the room she was staying at the camp was haunted.        

All through the album you can hear John Fitzgerald’s delicate guitar work drifting in and out between the melodies.  Hikurangi Schaverien-Kaa plays percussion between the spaces, not just keeping time but providing architecture to perfectly build up each mood, subtly, but without overwhelming.  Ben Lemi and Penelope Esplin add keyboards and other instrumentations and calm harmonies to fulfil these beautiful  textures.

As much as I’d like to say this is the perfect record for those house-bound by recent events, this reaches far beyond our current brief blip in history.  These songs are enduring and magical at all levels, bordering on commercially explosive, just holding back and remaining totally true to form.  Brooke Singer’s voice has grown so strong and engaging, her band are so competent, yet as individuals they remain the modest quiet, unassuming introverts that this wonderful album gleefully celebrates.

This article first appeared on ambient light

Check out French for Rabbits website

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