Fair Maiden, the Australian outfit spearheaded by frontwoman Ellen Carey (keyboards and vocals) deliver their second album in the form of Oleander this month. In this particular iteration of the band, Carey is joined by Steph Crase (Summer Flake, Batrider), Harriet Fraser-Barbour (Workhorse, Wireheads) and Workhorse guitarist Hamish Baird, whose efforts particularly play into the sound of the album. As might be expected from Fair Maiden – especially to the unfamiliar listener – the record has a twisted aesthetic that seems to associate itself with the dark ages, but with the trappings of a dark fairy tale.
The record opens with the choral vocal track “By Your Side”. It is a very straightforward song featuring the refrain “I’ll always be by your side,” which structurally constitutes the second line of what might be called an unrhymed couplet. The group’s harmonising technique and vocal treatment – almost a “cavernous hall” type of effect – begs to be compared to a medieval chant. It has a quick pace, so the breathing of the vocalists, especially by the end of the arrangement, makes the song feel organic and raw.
“Coal” follows, rather thinly arranged with a standard 70s drum pattern, a bouncy bassline, and a phaser-heavy guitar which fills out most of the sonic space of the song with quasi-surf-rock tones. Carey sings “I don’t know what you want from me…you only won the battle cos you cheated in the fight”; the song is unambiguously about a frustrated relationship. Lyrically, the song is very straightforward and merely nods to the poetic rather than accomplishing it. Still, the lyrics have their own force – probably rooted in their simplicity, honesty, and forlorn delivery. The highlight of “Coal” is Baird’s trippy, twangy, winding solo.
Next up is the weighty “Willow”, a song lyrically centered around “the pain inside of me”, invoking such themes as pain, torment, demons, and even the gratuitous, explicit reference to “knights and glory.” The song is exactly what it is supposed to be – a practice in joining the listener to the experience tendered in the song – but, with what feel like passing and predictable references, there is never any sublimity. Or, perhaps that’s the torment.
“Under Legs” is a rolling, sonically deep song that is a folksy, fairy-pastoral vignette evoking tales of the brothers Grimm. While the lyrics are, once again, nothing to be marvelled at, in “Under Legs” they do compliment Carey’s style and uniqueness rather nicely – particularly well-executed is the vocal harmonising on the track, which showcases Carey’s range and prowess as she accents her own lead.
“Joe” is still a little dreary, moving with a slow pace and some off-tune, reverberating guitar, but it feels a little more hopeful – or, at least, a little less despairing – after the previous two pieces. The surf-psych tones return, which is among the record’s strengths, inducing a swirling motion in an otherwise linear song. Carey’s vocals float over the dropping bassline and pulsing drum beat, of which the kick is used to provide a bit of bite. “Melting” is the feeling educed by the dramatic recognition that “we all die alone”, so compared by Carey in the song. “There’s only one thing that makes me nervous…we all die alone”, sings Carey, who almost comically transitions into, “and I can’t get you out of my mind, but mind’s dripping out of my ear” – indeed, there is a bit of harsh medieval grotesqueness present. One neat feature of the track is the bass notes subtly lingering under the instrumental, which give the effect of weightiness to a heavier, dirge-like progression.
The seventh track off Oleander is “Fire and Blood”, which plays like a gothic surf-psych tune with more funereal bass tones. “Fire and Blood” is a slightly more upbeat song – appropriately so, since it is a darker take on the erotic experience. The song ends “my tongue could break your bones, but I give it to you”. The fire and blood referenced in the title are evidently analogues for sexual activity – strangely, quite possibly one of the better poetic expressions of the album insofar as its effect is present, even if in a campy, tongue-in-cheek manner (which is debatable).
The next song is “Madness”, the title of which explicitly indicates the subject-matter and is adequately fortified in that regard by an off-tune instrumental. In terms of arrangement, the song has a shared structural character with the first track, “By Your Side”, in its essential nature as a primarily choral piece. Musically, it is clearly intended to be disorienting.
“All I Know” is a much more pleasant track featuring some rich backing harmonised vocals. Carey sings “there’s just a place in my bones where I, I cherish you dear, sometimes I feel lost for words when I, I have you so near”. Heartbreak might be all she knows but, in this song, it feels good, coming as close as the record has yet to a more conventional pop sound. In the case of “All I Know” this absolutely works, making it perhaps the album’s most standout effort.
The final song off the album is “Not OK”. This song has a slow-pace and pervasive reverb from a phaser-rich guitar. Rather consistent with the gesture of the album, it discusses her struggle: “people think I’m strong, people think I do no wrong, but I’ve been dying all along, and I don’t know how to say it”. After that punctuating line – perhaps the most honest moment on Oleander – “Not OK” winds down and is over in a short 3:36.
All told, Oleander is not a tremendously special release. It feels like a concept album based upon medieval tropes and associative material, which only may work if one is specifically disposed to the aesthetic, but immediately begins to dissipate where the listener revokes the suspension of disbelief. Not to say there are no elements of quality in the record, of course: the vocal harmonies can be charming, some of the surf tones are rewarding, and the driving pop presence in songs such as “Coal” and “All I Know” can even be infectious. When the dust settles, though, through the thematic content and general packaging of the record, it tends to limit itself.