Like a grassroots movement, New Zealand singer-songwriter Hollie Fullbrook has expanded the scope and ambition of her very personal craft with the international growth of her notoriety. Compared to her solo acoustic debut album, Some Were Meant For Sea in 2011, Olympic Girls (out February 2nd) feels like the dreams woven through her lyrics coming to a fuller sonic fruition, thanks in large part to the wide and diverse instrumentation of her backing band. Think Joni Mitchell meets the Cranberries; the folk roots are still there, but each track gets carried away to something more akin to dream pop.
Fullbrook’s lyrics, while mystical, are still grounded in plain imagery. Motel rooms and dusty bookshelves are romanticized and elevated into heady climaxes. Her lyricism has an accessibility similar to Bob Dylan’s in its upfront language, though the general lack of subject and character causes the music to lean more towards evoking emotions than telling any story. Most of the eleven tracks begin with just her and her guitar, before conjuring warm nostalgia (“Olympic Girls”), expansive darkness (“Stars, False, Fading”), or sighing daydreaminess (“Holograms”). Her voice has it’s own breathy cadence, but besides a few tracks (such as the very Leonard Cohen-esque “School of Design” with her vocals plucking alongside an upright bass, or her unique inflections in opener “Olympic Girls”), she tends to opt for the same pleasant and polished performance, which can feel overly safe.
That’s not to say she doesn’t set the stage for the album’s gorgeous instrumentals. There’s such a display of sounds here—cellos, vibraphones, organs, vintage synthesizers—giving the albums a lush tactility that nestles perfectly between electric and acoustic. Listen to the percussion palette of cymbals and shakers that propel “Sparklers”, or the sunny chimes and mellotron of “Kore Waits in the Underworld”. It’s never too melodically complex, but it does tend to shift songs in unexpected directions, like the chord progressions in “My Love Leda” or the strangely transposed darkness of the chorus in “Stars, False, Fading”, which threatens to pull and snap away from Fullbrook’s singing: “As the darkness grows / here’s hoping I never drift away from you.” No track is a better paradigm of this than “One Million Flowers”; psychedelic, ghoulish, baroque, and riding on a dense wave of continually shifting instruments that never seem to repeat themselves. And yet each track dips back to or ultimately returns to Fullbrook and her grounding guitar.
Tiny Ruins’ new record, Olympic Girls will likely pull you into its warm dreaminess with either its lyrics or its instrumentation, both of which are compelling. The album’s highpoints are in its most structurally complex tracks, while the low-points, shallow as they are, came from a rather flat vocal performance from leader Hollie Fullbrook, who lets her own visions sonically enshroud and overpower her. Standout tracks for me are “Olympic Girls”, “One Million Flowers”, and “Stars, False, Fading”.
review by Matthew Wardell