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Album Review: Reb Fountain - Reb Fountain (Flying Nun)

Roger Bowie

I have always been a bit hesitant about interviewing Reb Fountain for fear of a surplus of superlatives…I mean I’m a huge fan…and this is undoubtedly a huge step in her career…But right at the moment she wants to go Faster…the world stops…bugger…

But there is a new album coming out today, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting it since October 2018, when Reb first showcased some new songs at the Tuning Fork as part of that year’s local AmericanaFest. She had a great band, comprising Dave Khan and Ben Woolley (from Marlon’s band), Dylan Storey and Logan Campain…but they had only had just a few hours rehearsal. At times a little tentative, but as the show went on Reb took off, and gave a performance which was breath-taking. The band followed. And we had glimpses of Patti Smith, Lucinda Williams and Nick Cave flashing through a confident and almost defiant Fountain of Reb. Marty Duda and I looked at each other and agreed we’d seen something very, very special. Supernova. A whiskey moment. 

Time has passed since then. Reb was out and about in New Zealand and Europe with Finn Andrews. Building, building. Accepted for South by Southwest and embraced by Flying Nun. Womad. And a much anticipated support gig for Brandi Carlisle. Crash. Bang. Everything must change. Bad luck or karma? No point. Get the album out. A clutch of songs first, starting way back last year. And finally, we are here, with the album and tour dates for later this year. Two nights at the Wine Cellar, which might not have been there in November without Reb spearheading a Boosted campaign to support the iconic venue and its noisy neighbour, the equally iconic Whammy Bar.

The album is a beauty. All of it. Softer, darker, more mysterious than the exuberance of the Tuning Fork gig, but that’s what happens. Stage versus studio. The studio is for the songs, as they emerge from concept to creation, and the less adorned the better. Intellectual. The stage is where the songs take on a different personality, encouraged by the proximity of crushed humanity. Visceral. Two for the price of one. I can wait for the live versions, I’ve had a glimpse already, and in the meantime I revel in the beauty of the songs and the poetry. Reb doesn’t think she’s a poet, I think she just doesn’t know it. Revel in Reb.

Is it a career step or a resurgence, I wonder? I found Reb just four years ago, singing Joni Mitchell’s Circle Game as part of the 40th Anniversary of The Last Waltz, a local version curated by Simone Williams of Liberty Stage and with special guests Garth Hudson and producer John Simon. That’s a hard song to sing, and Reb just nailed it. Who is that?. Well of course she has been singing ever since she arrived with her family from California as a young child and making a mark in The Battle of the Bands in 1990, the best new voice to come out of Christchurch. Another Lyttleton laureate? Then supporting others, her solo act being that of a mother bringing up kids. Working with Neil Finn, supporting Adam McGrath in The Eastern. Long before, travelling to Europe and back to California. Jazz school. Could have been a jazz singer. Chose noir punk folk Americana (according to Lucy) instead. Great choice.  And in the past 2-3 years I have seen her move front and centre stage, and it’s been a joy to behold. Two albums and a tour playing tribute to Nick Cave building awareness and a presence. So it’s a surge for me, and a step on a journey for her. And the key has been confidence. Confidence which was coming back after years of struggle and was kicked in the guts by Sam Prebble’s untimely death but then re-emerged firstly as “no” becoming “yes”, then the albums and tours and then as an early one morning epiphany when she woke up to an awareness of her new album and who she wanted to produce it. Didn’t matter that Dave Khan hadn’t produced an album before or that he was in Europe with Marlon Williams. No, because Dave knows her music, and just knows how it should sound. And so he does. And so does Simon Gooding, another friend and early member of her band who is now head engineer at Roundhead. And what we get is a meticulously produced and engineered album with all the subtleties of a masterpiece. Sparse, but not too sparse. Minimalist folky, but a little jazzed up at times with piano chords and cabaret; and orchestrated as well. With contributions from Ben and Logan and Elroy Finn, and a gloriously frail and baritone vocal on When Gods Lie from Finn Andrews

Oh, and there are songs. I’ve just mentioned one. Brilliant song. And another right at the beginning. More on that below. Reb prefers her audience to interpret her songs rather than attempt to influence but of course she has her meaning and her inspiration and sometimes its clearer than others but of course when the song is done it belongs to everybody. Hawks and Doves opens the album like a scratchy old vinyl with Reb making changes and there are horses which reminds me of Patti Smith and ice flows over the road and hawks and doves fly and lie dead in the snow. Then we go poppy and poetic and love song with Samson. Lyrical beauty. Many voices. Nick Cave’s. Magic. Don’t You Know Who I Am has a story, which accompanied the song release a few days ago. About the Canadian First Nation poet who has been drunk and angry and arrested because he’s native and it’s the 70s folks, and that’s the very bad old days, and he’s defiant and full of bravado and dies. Maybe accidentally, maybe deliberately, maybe more sinister than that. Could be many people. Could be Sam. But it could also be Reb saying watch out world, here I come as the desperate, plaintive plea becomes a defiant roar when the song comes to life on stage (I know because I’ve seen it). Add a little whiskey. But not too much...

Faster is a favourite, released last year because Reb felt it would be more familiar to her listeners. Easing us in. I’m not so sure. It’s an easy album to like and this is a great song. “I want to go faster can’t find the time” Right now you have too much time.  It starts off pure country, and is a natural for Reb at the Ryman, because that’s surely what should happen and soon, even if soon stretches out a year or two. “some men pluck roses, some take to the sky”. Strangers has an eery, airy feel which lifts an octave or two as we soar into the stratosphere before landing again in a Lucinda kind of way. Then she goes Quiet Like The Rain, a sweet song which takes off in the middle down an orchestral path. “you lead and I’ll follow”

And quiet is how the album ends, with two pensive and sometimes sombre songs about Last Words and a Lighthouse which is about homecoming after unrequited love. or maybe not. Could also be about mental health. Make up your own mind, it's a listener's privilege. That’s not all the songs, there are ten in all, but there are no duds on this record, only marginally better or less than stellar. It’s an achievement. It’s a surge. It deserves to be heard.

Watch out Tami, Marlon and Aldous...Reb is coming through…

Reb Fountain - out this Friday, May 1st, through Flying Nun (NZ) 
Order the album here: https://ffm.to/rebfountain

Written By: Roger Bowie Roger Bowie has been collecting music since 1964, starting with 45 rpm singles, and then building an LP and CD collection from 1970. 1.8 per week since then. Not a vast collection, but eclectic and occasionally obscure. Roger is a big Americana fan, and regularly attends AmericanaFest in Nashville, held every September. Also, he once played golf with Alice Cooper...