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David Hurn - He Was a Woman

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Artist: David Hurn

Album: He Was a Woman

Label: Fire

Review date: Dec. 2, 2002

Comfortably Glum

We've been waiting for the next Roddy Frame since the mid-'80s, when Roddy Frame apparently decided he didn't want to be him any more and started recording progressively less-memorable records. The wait may finally be over.

If this debut album is anything to go by, East London's David Hurn could be the heir to the Aztec Cameraman's long-vacant alt. singer-songwriter throne. (Even Mark Eitzel saw the signs, personally inviting Hurn to open a London gig for him in 2000.)

He Was a Woman is a richly eclectic release, encompassing simple acoustic tunes, more expansive country-rock numbers, and even some moderately experimental moments. But while the stylistic heterogeneity is considerable, the common denominator is a marked wistfulness that permeates all the tracks. Indeed, critics have tended to situate Hurn in the "sadcore" category.

These days, of course, sad is the new happy but it isn't that easy to pull off. For some, irony is the answer: singer-songwriters like Michael J. Sheehy couch their miserablism in wry gallows humor. But for those who try to "do sad" straight, there's a perilously fine line between understated melancholy lyricism and full-blown bedwetting earnestness, or plain-old maudlin moping.

David Hurn manages to negotiate the pitfalls masterfully. His songs are exercises in subtlety, embodying Joni Mitchell's notion of there being "comfort in melancholy" instead of offering woe-is-me fodder for sullen teens in darkened rooms.

Much of Hurn's success resides in the way his voice (not simply his lyrics) conveys melancholy. It's not so much about understanding the words as it is about feeling them, something that's enhanced by the way the melodies resonate with the emotive character of his vocals. Hurn's an intelligent songwriter but his music is aimed first and foremost at the heart.

And he rarely misses. Sparser songs like "Wait to Forget" hit their mark by establishing a soothing intimacy with the listener. Elsewhere, Hurn augments his arrangements, adding nuances to the mood. A gentle country-rock twang evoking Mojave 3 gives "Don't Have to Live" instant nostalgia, while late-'60s-sounding vibes and horns enhance the wistful flavor of the lilting "Nancy Put Yourself First for a Change." More upbeat, thanks to its bouncy locomotive rhythms, is "No Love"; this could easily be a long-lost Aztec Camera number, right down to Hurn's voice, which sounds uncannily like Roddy Frame's.

On the standout, "Black Car," Hurn ventures into experimental territory and ultimately rocks a little. Here, layered guitars and organ initially conjure up a floating, moody ambiance (similar to some of the drifting textures of Robert Wyatt's Dondestan) before bringing the track to a swirling, haunted climax.

Because David Hurn forgoes simplistic hooks, imbues his songs with a strongly introspective feel, and refuses to settle for a singular stylistic identity, He Was a Woman isn't an album that instantly grabs your attention. Rather, it asks something of listeners. It works slowly and opens up gradually as you keep coming back to it. Hurn's debut is one of those records which prove that pop music isn't always disposable and that pop-music listeners needn't necessarily be passive consumers.

By Wilson Neate

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