This is supposed to be a new music blog and, believe it or not, I do listen to a fair bit of new music. But sometimes you fall behind a bit and, though recent records by The Goon Sax, Swearin and Comet Gain have all been excellent, and I may yet actually write about some of them, sometimes I just slip into a state of mind where all I want to do is play something comfortably familiar. And along with my beloved Trust Fund LPs, Dear Nora’s records have fit the bill recently. Katy Davidson’s indiepop turned minimalist folk project from the early 2000s has gained a kind of cultural cachet in recent times that they could never have dreamed of back in their heyday. This has included being adopted by Pitchfork, when Davidson’s unsettling and hauntingly beautiful second LP, “Mountain Rock”, was named “Best New Reissue” after its re-release on vinyl in 2017. With this year producing a long awaited new LP, “Skulls Example”, their first new material as Dear Nora since 2006’s patchy “There Is No Home”, the obvious move would be for me to give that a proper listen. But Katy has moved on stylistically from their earlier work and the effort required by me to listen to it thoroughly has so far proved beyond me: it seems that I simply can’t be arsed. Instead, for distinctly personal reasons, I’ve spent much of the last couple of months going on walks round my local village listening to 2008’s “Three States” double CD compilation.
It is a true behemoth of an album, weighing in at 111 minutes and a daunting 57 tracks, ranging from 2000’s debut single “Make You Smile” to 2006’s cover of The Zombies’ “This Will Be Our Year”, and including plenty of released and unreleased material from in-between, before and after. But rather than sounding like a cobbled together collection of odds and ends, it works just fine as an album in its own right, finding the band on eclectic but typically breathtaking form.
Dear Nora have been through extensive artistic changes during their twenty years plus in music, and there’s plenty of variation over the decade covered here. The starting point is the charming, brattish punk pop of their earliest work, and this is the source of some of the most satisfying songs on the record. “Second Birthday” is more or less perfection, a stunning mixture of clipped, tuneful riffing and Katy’s gleefully childlike early vocal style, but given a bittersweet touch by its sharp lyrical edge. “Second Hand” takes the same template and adds a wonderful, soaring bridge, showing an increasing sophistication of songwriting that would only deepen as time moved on.
After the first dozen or so songs, the rest of the first disc is largely taken up with demoish acoustic material, and these highly personal sketches are generally just as well executed. The artistic declaration of intent of “My Guitar” is another standout track, carried along by its insistent single note counterpoint, as Katy refuses to let their life stand still, candidly spitting, “I’m not gonna lay down in cement, not today”. This showcases a major theme of “Three States”, change, travel and moving on, which returns again and again over the period covered. This can also be seen on the gentle, punishing “The Weight’, where a lover is declared “a carrier of hope“, before being implored to leave Katy behind, as they repeatedly sing “leave me and carry on, the weight won’t get lighter” over the deceptively warm accompaniment. This combination of light and dark is a further touchstone on this album, the delicate backing often masking an uncomfortable, brutal honesty.
Disc 2 continues the high standards of the first, and occasional scraps of sound set aside, there isn’t a genuinely bad track on the entire set. “Sarah, You’re Not For Me” is my favourite song on “Three States” overall, a career pinnacle, previously thrown away on a various artists compilation, but rescued here from obscurity. The section in the middle, where it veers into a passage of blissful psychedelic reverie, is the kind of moment lesser bands would have based their entire catalogue around, whereas for Dear Nora it was just one more diversion in a body of work peppered with intriguing twists and turns. The twin takes of “Hey Tiger” show how Davidson could turn the same song into different, equally captivating shapes, by turns warm, confident psych pop and a vulnerable acoustic sketch, both of which are highlights.
Covers of classics by Bob Dylan and The Zombies (as previously mentioned) show a couple of obvious influences, but Davidson’s songwriting has plenty of unique touches. This is especially clear towards the end of the collection as it becomes increasingly unusual, veering towards flinty, uncomfortable pieces such as “When Things At Home Got Shitty”. However, these are still interlaced with material like the gentle, melodic folk of “Fargo”, which offers plenty of light relief. It’s a tough prospect when you’re first looking 57 tracks in the face, but if you take it out on a journey, anything where you’re shackled to an mp3 player, then the quality and sheer extraordinary talent on display on “Three States” will soon become clear. And it may yet be that I properly get round to “Skulls Example”, which I really ought to do cos there’s plenty on there to love I think, from the little that I’ve heard of it. But at the moment, it seems likely that the next time I lace up my shoes, I’ll just head back to “Three States” and listen to that once more.