Mary Hampton – Folly (Teaspoon)
By Tamsin Chapman
A hush and a hurtle down the wrong end of a telescope, a slip and a trip through the cracks in the pavement, to somewhere removed from here, yet strangely familiar. Tales like this abound in English folklore; those half-worlds of quiet darkness, uncanny and uncomfortable. I’m aware I sound like a pretentious prick, but I promise you – that story, the one about the world glimpsed out of the corner of your eye in the mirror, that story is what Mary Hampton’s music most resembles.
So now you’re thinking Tinkerbell and glitterwings, floaty velvet scarves and dream catchers. Rainbows. Unicorns. Bat For Lashes. Please don’t. Hampton creates art that is timeless, seasonless and genderless. It’s steeped in history and rooted in the Sussex downs and pebbled beaches, yet is also completely of the present and gleefully inventive. There are no histrionics, only an intense calm. But the calm isn’t restful, it’s anticipatory, like a hush in the air before the rain. When Hampton sings, her mouth twists into ugly shapes. Beauty is not simple and it is never painless.
On Folly, Hampton’s second album, her sound is developed and honed. Her band Cotillion come into their own and instrumentation is used exploratively and to great effect – off-kilter trumpet, steam pipes, violin, piano, cello, double-bass and accordion all feature. Most notably Hampton’s voice is treated as just another instrument used to build up a brittle storm lantern of considered noise. Every song has been perfectly shaped so that there’s no question that each one is the definitive version. Take ‘Benjamin Bowmaneer’, a 17th Century folk song performed under various names for almost 300 years, most recently by Eliza Carthy. Mary Hampton’s version is the correct version. It just is.
(The clip above is a live version, but gives an idea of Hampton’s beguiling concert presence.)
Although influences are taken from elsewhere, such as on the other cover, Blind Mamie Forehand’s ‘Honey In The Rock’ – a tender gospel song, with a “pat-a-cake’”clapping game for percussion, Englishness steeps through the album’s spine. Although musically disparate, Folly could be listened to alongside PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake – inhabiting a similar territory of the political, experimental and traditional.
Hampton’s lyrics aren’t easy to interpret. Often sinister, they’re poetic yet rooted in the ordinary. “The old folks cut their toenails by the light of a cartoon,” opens the clanking piano and dissonant trumpet-led ‘Hoax And Benison’. Many of the songs possess this not-quite-nightmare sense.
However, ‘No. 32’, an Emily Dickinson poem put to music, offers a possible clue: “I died for beauty but was scarce adjusted in the tomb/When one who died for truth was laid in an adjoining room”. This conflict between beauty and truth is at the heart of Hampton’s art. And the pursuit of such things, especially under the banners of war and empire perhaps form part of the collection of “follies” to which the lyrics abstractly refer. Decaying empire in ‘The Man Behind The Rhododendron’, childish war in ‘Benjamin Bowmaneer’, possessive desire in ‘Kiss V’. That’s my theory anyway.
Hampton has an obsession with birds. As on her previous album My Mother’s Children, they appear in the lyrics of her songs (‘Forget-Me-Not’, ‘Lullaby For The Beleaguered’), in birdsong sounds (‘Benjamin Bowmaneer’), and her bird-like appearance has probably often been remarked upon. They are a good metaphor – soft feathers and coos, bones, beady eyes and claws.
Folly is a bird, in the distance effortless and heart-stopping. Up close a whir of beating wings. And yes, I know I sound pretentious again. I just want you to listen to and buy this album please. Then you’ll know what I mean.