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August 4, 2008 | by  | in Music | [ssba]

Jess Chambers and the Firefly Orchestra – Self Titled

Wellington based singer/songwriter Jess Chambers’ debut album is really nice and quite folky. I’d normally count this as a bad thing. I don’t like folk – just don’t – never have and never will. Sorry. But Jess is something different, and this album is a splendidly lyrical and haunting piece of work that doesn’t rely on genre conventions to achieve impact.

Her voice is pretty special. She’s been likened to Beth Gibbons of Portishead – a better comparison would be Ruth Carr of Nelsonian breakbeat trio Minuit – but what sets her apart from the likes of these two is that she’s not afraid to sound like an adult woman rather than a twelve year old girl. For most of the songs she restrains her singing to a whisper, but just when you’re starting to get fed up with her fauxinnocent breathiness she releases her full hollerin’ throaty voice, to spine-tingling effect. What’s more, her tuning and timing are spot on, each lyric is crystal clear, and it all sounds utterly effortless. Damn she’s good.

Aside from Jess’ evident natural talent the album is beautifully produced by Justin ‘Firefly’ Clark, also a virtuoso guitarist who plays on several tracks. The overall feel is organic, honest and almost oldfashioned. All of the instruments played are acoustic; choruses of male voices offset Jess’ delicate femininity, and everything is given a generous helping of reverb that evokes a live concert feeling. This is a welcome change from her previous work with electronic artists such as Rhian Sheehan – her exceptional voice is given a chance to shine in this more naturalistic setting.

Jess is also clearly a brilliant songwriter. While her melodies and lyrics are fairly simple they seem to be perfectly composed and matched. The songs are so delicately balanced; it feels like they could at any moment tip over from genuinely emotive into trite and sentimental, yet they’re so carefully written that this rarely occurs. Favourites for me are ‘Lowlights’, with its low, dark, bluesy melody, and ‘Weaving’, which I’m almost ashamed to admit makes me want to cry whenever I listen to it.

Wait – crying over a folk song? What is happening to me? Jess Chambers, you are a witch in disguise. This album is totally not my thing – it’s (almost) too nice, there’s very little that’s twisted or dark or tripped out or fucked up about it – but there is no denying it’s brilliant.


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  1. Chrissy says:

    I absolutely LOVE this album. Beautiful. I will play it non-stop for the next month

  2. Si - Wanaka says:

    Randomly stumbled into Jess’s gig in Wanaka last night. The best $5 I’ve ever spent. Very reminiscent of Fisherman’s Woman era Emiliana Torrini. The first CD I’ve bought for a long time – I’ll be keeping an ear out for Jess in future. Beautiful.

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