Album of the Week: Fair Mothers – Separate Lives

By Maria Sledmere

This particular Sunday, I’m writing in the rage of Storm Ciara, writing from bed in my tartan blankets, deep in the heart of Glasgow. Somehow, there’s a reason to be here. I bundle epiphanies in the creases of a song, then another, ten of them coming incredibly; this album I listened to in the heartwood of last night, songs of a tender insomnia. Songs you’d knock at the bark, the rot, scrape at the sap to get to. And the wind outside pulls blue across the sky; to look out at that, surely, is an act of faith, a change in key. Somehow, there’s a reason to believe in the blue, the way you spell fear. Heartwood, heart of Glasgow, tiny throbbing red of a faraway loch, twilit, the darkling strings underneath. I made a loch of the song, clicked at the lock, shook off my midnight clothes to enter. 

Sometimes it takes a record to know yourself, luxurious as elsewhere, new melancholia. Released on Valentine’s Day, ‘Separate Lives’ is the first of two new LPs from Kevin Allan’s Fair Mothers project, and it comes as a gift for both the loved and lonely in love. Recorded in Edinburgh at Matthew Young’s Happiness Hotel studio, the album is a posthumous release for dearly departed Scottish label, Song, by Toad (whose roster included Lush Purr, Modern Studies, Lomond Campbell, Siobhan Wilson and Meursault). Featuring contributions from Dana Gavanski and Faith Elliott (vocals), Sam Mallalieu (drums) and Pete Harvey (cello), ‘Separate Lives’ is a record of intimacy and distance, arrival and departure, shadow and glimmer. It carries you on a warmth, a softness, but its themes are bittersweet, cut from anxiety and the sense of what’s missing. Not quite nostalgia, but some other mist that would thicken the present.

Fair Mothers’ debut, ‘Through Them Fingers Yours and Mine’, recorded with the inimitable, SAY-award winning Kathryn Joseph and legendary local producer Marcus Mackay, was a modest and gorgeous trove of songs, stripped to acoustic meditation. In the quietude that followed, Allan admits falling into a sort of isolation or straying from the solid world in retreat. These new songs, richer and warmer, with layers of piano, synths and strings, feel like a movement towards peace, almost plenitude, if not settlement. A reaching out and back to us, several beloved reasons to live. The video for opening single, ‘Rainfall Canada’ features a rolling monochrome of cloud, the line “I was in the middle”, drawing us into the sense of this drift, of existential betweenness. An act of intimacy described in the song, “you let me in / all the same”, speaks to the generosity of the album as a whole. Allan writes hospitable tunes you want to hum in the rain, higher, harmonising lightly with Elliott and Gavanski’s vocal contributions, moving towards a more velvet space of contemplation. 

I write this from a space of loss, as you may also when you listen. In ‘King of the Bile’, Allan worries if he is even “worth a single tear”. But every veil of that sorrow, the emptying out of self into mist, is only us breathing in the trees of our lives. Each song drawing rings around those moments that haunt and return, that burn or sweeten, unfurl into life or decay. And is it a freedom? There’s a nocturnal quality to the album, a sense that these songs come from times of interval or transition, times we ask for an answer beyond us or lift away from the grind. In ‘Arriving at Midnight’, Allan conjures omens and signs of a quiet madness between two people, on the cusp of New Year. On ‘Undone’, Allan and Elliott softly duet an unravelling that feels almost hymnal, if not loosened to an empty morning, crisp acoustic guitar plucked brightly beneath. There’s a trace of Jason Molina’s sparse and lyrical glow, his lugubrious self-awareness, moving into a kind of strength in admission, “same position on my own”, picked up with richer instrumentation. This is a dialogue between loneliness and what happens when you cast that loneliness in space: make of it swirl and sound, invite others into your storm. There are many lovely moments of clearing.

And yet these clearings are never permanent: the leaves shake in again, the sadness continues; the leaves will curl and crisp to cinders. Someone is playing harmonica in the dark room of your mind, and from that breath I would take a photo, hold you close. In ‘Suck The Breeze’, the refrain “I’m so lonely” susurrates through the song, despite its scenes of family intimacy; Allan always questions what it is we salvage from the everyday, how strange is time that it would give us these moments only to fade. “I was always someone else inside”, he sings on ‘Sharons’, and you feel the weight of that otherness is almost lithic, deep, without human age. The bristle of a chord is your face against bark, listening nearer, your ears to the wind.

Your ears to the wind are raw as song, cut into whorl and smoothed as rock. Co-produced by Allan and Young, ‘Separate Lives’ has a lustrous, spacious quality, so that even after the last song rolls, you might imagine a flame still flickering in the dark room of your mind. What breeze is it that keeps us in song? And you strum and you strum, and there is the weight. “Everything is alright here”, we have to keep saying, wherever the days take us. Maybe this album is an attempt to get at this ‘everything’, its rich possibilities of past and present, the stake of our lives, the lint that sticks to the days. I want to say it is soft, warm and smooth as mahogany; but it is also the cold chime of a midnight loch on your skin, the kelp-stuck lyric of slumber, the ‘Dark Old Love’ of what “scares the hell out of me”. Once listened, you let the splinter enter and lodge there; by the end, you know it was there already. After all, heartwood yields the hardest timber.

‘Separate Lives’ is out Friday 14 February on Song, by Toad Records.

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