What a way to begin the year?! We are barely into the New Year and already a contender for best new debut of 2016 has arrived. The bewitching and spellbinding release Confessions of a Romance Novelist by The Anchoress arrives January 15. The Anchoress is Welsh songstress Catherine Anne Davies under a new moniker. She along with co collaborator Paul Draper, legendary Mansun front man, has released a jaw dropper of an album. Davies is best described as part prog Karen Carpenter, a 21st century version of Kate Bush and stylistically a fellow musical traveller with Florence Welch. Davies is the latest addition to the sisterhood of Alternative English enchantresses.
Hailing from Wales, Renaissance woman Davies is a force of nature. She came from a humble back ground but educated herself off the council estate. Her endeavors and accomplishments are breathtaking in number and quality. She received her PhD in Literature and Queer Theory from the University of London, has written and published a book about epic poetry,and been an artist in residence with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. She has self released a solo mini album under her other alias Catherine A.D. called Communion. She has been heavily involved in numerous musical manifestations including the Scottish super-group Dark Flowers and provided keyboards and her multiple skills to Simple Minds on their 2015 world tour. Her influences range from Laura Nyro, Bowie, Tom Waits, Prince, Kate Bush, Harry Nilsson and the Carpenters. No one can doubt she has served her apprenticeship with some of the best in the industry and is most definitely ready for her place in the spotlight.
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Confessions of a Romance Novelist is the culmination of Davies lifetime pursuit for a meaningful and successful career in popular music. When asked why take on the additional alias of The Anchoress, Davies stated, “The reason for the other name was to put a difference between myself and the persona, to prevent pigeon-holing and simply having no marketing plan.” The charming and quick witted Davies brings miles deep intelligence to the release. The album has been far from an easy accomplishment. At one point the release’s chances of seeing daylight were seriously threatened by a series of events. Catherine injured her wrist so severely while in the studio playing for 48 hours straight, that there were doubts she would play again. She ended up wearing a metal brace for 6 months. In addition during the three years it took to record the album her father was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor and passed away. Catherine has described the events surrounding the album in this way, “this has been made on a wing and a prayer, lots of favours, one car crash, one death, one broken hand, and a lot of patience on so many parts. Stir in three jobs, 2 arrests, three pianos, 40 songs and 1 very patient engineer and you get some way to understanding what a long road it has been.”
What really sent the album on its way was the arrival of Mansun front-man Paul Draper, who is featured on the album’s duet You and Only You. That is far from his only contribution. Together the two co produced Confessions of a Romance Novelist and formed a potent musical partnership. Davies describes her starting to work with Draper as a huge watershed that turned a somewhat floundering effort into something that would actually happen. It was with this collaboration that all of Davies skills were distilled into something exceptional and fully utilized Catherine’s amazing multi instrumental skills. The label Multi instrumentalist is an understatement when considering just some of the instruments she plays on the album; piano, guitar, flute, omnichord, mellotron, Wurlitzer, glockenspiel, and celeste. The end result of the collaboration of Davies and Draper has been an intricately textured creation.
The concept of Confessions of a Romance Novelist is summed up as a de-constructing narrative on ideas of love and romance with each song sung by a different character, a musical ghost writing of sorts. It is equal parts an examination of modern feminism and sensual experience. Also woven into the fabric of the album is the concept of an Anchoress. As per definition an anchoress is a female religious hermit or recluse. In some ways the characters in the album are all speaking in monolog as reclusive from interaction, which mirrors back to the Anchoress description. Additionally Davies conveys her love of literature throughout the collection of songs; especially fleshing itself out in the beautifully executed gatefold CD with a 22 pg booklet. Ask yourself how often do artists provide a CD insert with a full reading list and other engaging paraphernalia?
“Confessions” does not hesitate to jump into drama. On the opener, Long Year is a surreal sounding tune with a tempting vocal treatment. The song begins in a childlike daydream and then descends into a hallucination. It is Frankenstein with Davies as the Dr. hovering over the monster, “and when I raise him from his watery grave gonna let me praise him.” There is an undercurrent of dread and fear, “it’s going to be a long year and I’ve got reason to fear.” The song is an excellent lead off for the album and stunning both in lyrical construct and arrangement. It will make you sit up and notice, something different is about to commence.
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The radio friendly What Goes Around theme is karma and the topic of getting revenge but also the repercussions of getting your own back. It has the feel of Kate Bush’s “Babooshka”. Throughout the track Davies warns,”When you embark on revenge, better dig two graves my friend, because revenge is a dish served cold, goes around and around”. “What Goes Around” is a fantastic and engaging song. Doesn’t Kill You will knock you back on your heels, the song is shimmering and enchanting. Davies voice is mesmerizing on this ballad. The song is beautifully conceived, performed and produced. The best words to describe it are dramatic, lush and satisfying.
The second pre release single You and Only You is a stellar duet between Davies and Draper and an anthemic ode to being better off alone. Draper is the perfect vocal foil to Davies rich voice. The song is heartbreaking as the protagonist attempts to chase away a lover before that lover become collateral damage in the dramas of the person’s life, “keep away I am not myself”. The protagonist of the song forces a breakup for the best of reasons. The lyrics present someone knowing they are too selfish to be with the person they love; ”Find someone simple, less complicated than I am …stay away save yourself … find someone who is willing to give you the love I can’t.” The song is beautifully conveyed and the duet that could have become maudlin is given an apt touch by both performers. The song is a highpoint of the album.
The feminist call to arms, One for Sorrow is enthralling. The topic if not handled with such wry insight and skill could have been off putting for some. It is a song counteracting the accepted wisdom given to girls. It is punchy and not afraid of a confrontation. “One for sorrow, two for joy, these are the rules that you must employ… father told me not to be so smart just find a boy you like and won’t break your heart.” The song is certainly not sugar and spice and everything nice. It takes on the trope of measuring your life as a woman by false markers such as marriage and the materialistic fairy tale ending. It also makes a plea for shaking the unfair expectations no man can ever live up to; “measure the boy to the fairy tale.” Davies points out that you only fail if you measure your life against the accepted female “happily ever after” myth. Make sure to note the snippets in the intro and conclusion of the song, a hat tip to The Manic Street Preachers who frequently use snippets so effectively.
The rightful attention getter, P.S. Fuck You is like an imaginary dialog or letter to a cruel ex lover. Here Davies cleverly combines the confessional flavour of a Tori Amos piano ballad with famed 60’s diva breakup song styling for a great track. It delivers an indelible kick in the pants to all sub par, cruel lovers.
The song Popular was the first pre release of the album. Also the song that is the most fully realized as what Davies originally heard in her head. This is also the song that marked her move from working on the album entirely on her own to the entrance and watershed moment of Paul Draper’s involvement. The song is reminiscent of Kate Bush’s “Sat In Your Lap” off “The Dreaming.” It is a deft examination of how crushing the social pressure to be popular is throughout one’s life. It is a song for those who just never seem to fit in; “I’m not popular …she’ll go far but she’ll never be popular.” The song expresses the insight that being unpopular creates the ambition to succeed; with the brainy girl ending up with everything in the end. This song will not let you go; it is addictively listenable and should come with a warning because you can’t get it out of your head. Also make sure to catch the brilliant use of the chorus of voices in gossip at the end of the song.
Bury Me moves away from the confrontation of the prior three songs. It is more ethereal and elegiac. The track shows off the wondrous scope of Davies voice in a haunting goosebump inducing song. Sonically “Bury Me” soars with a crystalline purity. The atmospheric Intermission (Notes to the Editor) recalls Kate Bush’s “Waking the Witch” from “Hounds of Love”. Obscured voices and an ethereal chorus are the main parts of the track. It is dreamlike and sounds like an incantation of sorts being set to music.
Waiting to Breathe seems to be about the other woman and personifies her as hoping against hope that her lover will finally come back to stay. The song plays with the idea of holding one’s breathe praying to have a dream come true. It also attempts to convey the white knuckled desperate feeling of lacking air like drowning when you’re not even in the water. Again beautifully executed and the production is immaculate.
The album shape-shifts again on Chip On Your Shoulder with a funkier up-tempo track. The song is smartly composed and accomplished, beautifully literate and filled with hooks galore. The topical undercurrent is feminism and coping with the fear of being left on the shelf. Davies proposes the need to be able to look society in the eye and say,” so what if I don’t conform to the standard of female expectations?”
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The title song Confessions of a Romance Novelist is an immense song and can possibly be taken as Davies mission statement. It utilizes stream of consciousness constructs with a confessional nature. The track pointing out we all judge people by their outside cover, which is foolish because no one shows who they truly are, so how can we know anyone? That idea is summed up by the repeated lyric, “you don’t know me.” The song is heartfelt and sung with great conviction with a cool outré of the surreal at the end.
The final selection is a cover of the Simple Minds song Rivers of Ice. The track is a beautiful revelry drawing the album to a close. It is best described as Davies trying to sing a painting. It is wintry, pristine, evocative and contemplative. It is a work of art in itself.
Confessions of a Romance Novelist is so good I can’t pick a favourite track. Catherine’s intelligence shines through on each song. Paul Draper does a stellar job as a co collaborator, never being overt but putting his fingerprints on the release. He never upstages or gets in Davies way. This album makes me impatient for his forthcoming solo album which Davies helped him co write. “Confessions of a Romance Novelist” is fantastically clever and charming. It sounds effortless but took a lot of time and thought to make. There is a profession shimmer to each selection that evinces skill and mastery. It has the mark of accepting nothing less than excellence. Thankfully Davies persevered through adversity to see this work release. It is with Confessions of a Romance Novelist that Davies certainly earns the mantle of intelligent enchanting songstress. Rest assured there will be more Anchoress goodness as Davies is already working on her second album with Bernard Butler. It is going to be hard to wait.