…taking elements of the old Purson mix of retro late-’60s psychedelia and proto-prog rock and putting them through the blender of her own myriad musical inspirations. The result is an album which is part prog, part folk, part art-pop, part whimsy, and yet all Cunningham.
It has to be said that timing has not always been the friend of singer/composer/multi-instrumentalist Rosalie Cunningham over the past few years. Firstly having the courage to dissolve her band Purson at a point when they seemed to be making some real progress, the pressure was on her to deliver something impressive in her solo guise to avoid claims of a big error in judgement. She managed to clear that hurdle with ease when she released her fascinating, multi-faceted self-titled debut album in 2019, and everything seemed clear for her new career to engage the thrusters and take off. Enter Covid, and suddenly all live bets were off and musicians couldn’t even get together in a studio to record, this driving a spike into not only the promotion of that debut release, but also plans for recording a follow-up. There must be a tendency in those circumstances to develop a persecution complex of sorts, and give in to the temptation to sit and lick one’s metaphorical wounds – but not in the world of Rosalie Cunningham. Instead she spent lockdown beavering away on songs for the next album, working on them with partner Rosco Wilson in her home studio environment, and lo and behold, we have a sophomore album which surpasses its predecessor in every way.
Just as eclectic in its stylistic range as the debut release, there is nevertheless more focus and a greater sense of unity about this collection, taking elements of the old Purson mix of retro late-’60s psychedelia and proto-prog rock and putting them through the blender of her own myriad musical inspirations. The result is an album which is part prog, part folk, part art-pop, part whimsy, and yet all Cunningham. It’s quite the trick to pull off, but the proof is in the listening, and this compact 45-minute release comprising ten songs (plus both songs from a single release added on for bonus good measure) is a fine listening experience.
The opener, Start With The Corners (referencing the puzzle of the title) may be under three minutes, but it is a full-on hard prog statement of intent, coming over like Atomic Rooster at their most vital and vibrant. It’s a fine opener without doubt, and yet it does nothing to prepare you for the nine minutes of pure 1970s folk-rock storytelling which comprises Donovan Ellington and its sequel, Donny Part Two. Telling the classic folk tale of a working man heading to America to find a new life in the promised land, only to find that, sadly, it is very much a case of ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’, the highest praise I can give is that this would have sat happily on a Steeleye Span record during their mid-’70s pomp and experimentation. Fairport’s Ric Sanders guests on violin in what is a masterstroke, as he gives things just the right dose of folk authenticity. Three tracks in, and so far it’s all winners. After the short spoken word / sound collage piece which is the almost avant-garde The War, things are going to go up another notch as we hit the finest fifteen minutes on the album by some way. Duet is a wonderfully multi-faceted piece, featuring shared vocals from Rosalie and Rosco, beginning in a sort of 10cc art-pop vein, and detouring into a mid-section with a hint of Beatle about it, before a magnificent coda complete with epic grandstanding guitar soloing takes us to the seven and a half minute close in triumphant fashion. Things have suddenly become very ‘prog’, but don’t touch that cape, because we’re staying in this zone for another seven minute epic of sorts, Tristitia Amnesia – a title so hard to remember how to spell that even the CD cover track listing gets it wrong! Lyrically dense and open to much subjective interpretation, musically the track is equally hardcore, with the overall effect being the most defiantly prog piece of the whole album, full of Gentle Giant juxtapositions between heavy guitar lines and busy, tricky musical arrangements. It’s another triumph, and the album is absolutely in the red zone now.
It’s back to shorter and slightly more concise pieces at this point, with the dark and beguiling Scared Of The Dark giving way to the acid-folk existentialism of God Is A Verb and the muscular groove of the bizarrely titled Suck Push Bang Blow (definitely the first song by that name I’ve ever come across, it’s hard to imagine it being a widely used expression). The closing song of the album proper follows this, with the splendidly composed rumination on life, love and excess which is The Liner Notes, six minutes of gradually building majesty to finish the official proceedings in style. But we aren’t quite done yet, as both ‘sides’ (can we still say ‘sides’ now?) of a pre-album single release Number 149 / The Fossil Song are included for a very welcome dessert to follow the main course. Number 149 is a nostalgic song, wistfully taking its name from the number of the house in which the young Rosalie grew up, while The Fossil Song has a darker gravitas in its lyrical content, yet mixes this with a chorus which will burrow into your head and take up residence. Don’t try to fight it, just let it in and ride out its residency – because it will sit there reminding you that somehow, despite not seemingly over commercial, the song is irrestistibly catchy almost by stealth.
Great credit has to be given to Rosalie Cunningham for creating this album. Not only did she play the vast majority of the instruments and write everything (apart from three co-writes), she has proceeded along her already-introduced eclectic path and managed to refine it into the most coherent and accomplished work she has yet produced, either solo or with Purson. The lyrics are just the right level of inscrutability and allusion without being too vague for their own good, with lines such as ‘Lip slip differential, LSD’ and ‘Nursing third degree cerebral burns’ bringing to mind prime Ian Anderson, which cannot be a bad thing. I don’t know whether this album is the final piece of the puzzle, but I’m looking forward to seeing what the next one can add to the picture. Going by this one, it could go anywhere it wants to…