In recent years Freya Josephine Hollick has been a name claiming special attention for her impressive singing and writing. Aware of this growing reputation, I bought this album out of a bit of curiosity and to hear what Shane Reilly was up to, as he's one of the most gifted musicians working in roots music at present. Certainly, I wasn't prepared for something as assured, sophisticated and inspired as Feral Fusion. The title suggests an amalgam of non-mainstream styles and it is certainly that. The list of performers in the dedication "to the people who made the music that inspired this album" is as eclectic as it is accurate. The cover art is a collage of seemingly disparate images; a bit of Bosch here, some movie and documentary stills there, with the singer confidently riding an angry giant Serval the central focus. However, there's nothing ad hoc about this record, no melding for melding's sake. Hollick's writing and singing are of
apiece allowing her voice to inhabit her beautiful melodies, Killer titles such as 'On A Mission To Kill All The Hatred In Man', Jesus Hates It When You Smoke', 'Breakfast Of Smalltown Champions' and Vapour Of A Man' show an artist with a keen sense of humour, and the wry lyrical observations within these songs share something well beyond the sometimes overtly worthy tone adopted by many roots performers. Hollick and producer Roger Bergodaz have assembled a range of players to realise the breadth of these songs. The choice of Sam Lemann as accompanist on the acoustic tracks is inspired. His faultless technique and phrasing accentuates Hollick's vocal, maintaining the intimacy of her songs. Elsewhere, Thomas Brooks and Jacob McGuffie provide assured and sympathetic guitar parts - the shimmering reverb reverie that concludes 'Like A Dog Upon A Bone' is a delight - while Ben Franz adds his double bass and pedal steel. Bergodaz doubles on drums and bass for all but one song, providing rhythmic cohesion on all tracks. A push pull tracking approach paces the collection: a few band tracks - both orchestrated and guitar centric, then a vocal and acoustic guitar duo piece. A determinedly old school approach in the age of Spotify and evidence that this is something meant to be played from beginning to end. Opening song and first single 'Mister One Time' points a mockingly damning finger at a certain kind of opportunistic would-be lothario, while the second, 'The Devil You Know' is a poignant meditation on single motherhood. 'On A Mission To Kill All The Hatred in Man' contemplates the infinite with delicacy and wit, yet avoids anything awkward through Reilly's mischievous and inspired Gos hyper country politan arrangement with its string and pedal steel interplay. Indeed, his guitar - standard and baritone, orchestrations and deeply sensitive pedal steel are highlights throughout the album.
The centrepiece of the record is 'Love Lingers On', a ballad so sweeping and timeless that it seems to exist in its own universe. Reilly and Bergodaz build an arrangement worthy of all the great hanky weepies; yet locate it somewhere between plaintive Willie Nelson or Loretta Lynn and a sort of 60's sci-fi kookiness, without losing its contemporary authority. Listen for Reilly's muted guitar chords, vibes and pedal steel and you hear something Richard Hawley might conjure while Hollick reflects on lost love as something elemental yet transcendent and eternal with imagery evoking the mysteries of nature. The Romantic poets used to rabbit on about the sublime; when Hollick sings the word you feel that something perfect yet perfectly incommunicable has somehow been delivered. My record collection sometimes seems to groan under the weight of melancholy ballads. This year alone John Prine has given us 'Summer's End', Willie Nelson 'Something You Get Through', Ry Cooder 'Harbor Of Love' and The Milk Carton Kids an entire broken-hearted album, All The Things I Did And All The Things I Didn't Do. And that's just a few blokes, Add to these Love Lingers On.
The remaining songs are no less assured; deft lyric details, lilting melodies sympathetic arrangements and superb playing are the cornerstones. It is a credit to the dedication of the players and producer that a recording made with a modest budget can sound so rich and rewarding. However, while the arrangements and playing are significant the focus is certainly on Hollick. Having absorbed such a range of old time and contemporary vocal approaches she has developed an instrument that, with seeming effortlessness, coaxes power and melodic nuances from her wellcrafted material. All her lyrics align with her melodies; Stray syllables aren't allowed, yet the relaxed confidence of her delivery belies the discipline required to realise such affective songwriting. These are very Strong songs, the equal of any released by artists with much higher profiles. The roots, Americana, alt-country, call-it-what-you-will label is a sort of outpost in Australia. Artists here often fight against mainstream indifference, nevertheless creating music for loyal, if small audiences. In other parts of the world it holds a significant demographic; festivals abound with many acts making a noise as they lob their work into the mainstream. Freya Josephine Hollick has just received a significant grant from Creative Victoria to enable her to develop and expand her recording opportunities. A nomination from National Live Music Awards for best live country artist of the year, a gong voted on by fellow musicians, media, venues and bookers, shows that her songs and recordings are part of a whole artist package. The 'real deal' cliché is thrown around so much that it might as well be selling toothpaste. However, the evidence in this record has nothing to do with tedious cliché of course, it's a signpost to an artist growing at such a pace that Hollick will surely surpass her already shining reputation.