If the consistent string of album successes from Aotearoa’s folk royalty over the last few years can be considered a coming-to-light of the greatest talents in our singer-songwriter pool, then it could also be considered incomplete up until this month, due to the notable absence of Auckland’s Tiny Ruins. It’s been a gap of five years since Brightly Painted One, the brilliant second album from Hollie Fullbrook’s moniker, save one collaborative EP. Now, with her third album Olympic Girls, Fullbrook has emerged boldly from that gestation period.
What does five years of development and idea-brewing mean for Tiny Ruins? Well, both not much and a lot.
The sound on Tiny Ruin's Olympic Girls is more expansive, the production richer and more three-dimensional, the instrumentation more colourful.
The central acoustic guitar, delightfully twangy just like in live sets, is joined by the usual upright bass as well as layers of drums, percussion, smooth electric guitar, glockenspiel, and woodwind. All of this sounds fantastic, but is all just ornamentation and dressing-up of the album’s core - Fullbrook’s understated and clever songwriting, which hasn’t changed all that much in style since Brightly Painted One. That’s not a bad thing, because these eleven songs show that this specific stylistic pond, all concise characterisation and observant imagery, is far from running dry for the songwriter.
The title track is a triumphant-feeling opener, with a sense of sweeping grandiosity. “Weren’t we born to break out/To feel the muddy banks swell?” sings Fullbrook over a jostle of shakers, strings, and sunny electric guitar. It’s a fantastic song, where every line packs a punch, particularly the career-referencing couplet “In the freedom of a microphone/there’s a shadow I can’t shake”.
I’ve been waiting for the studio recording of second track School of Design since seeing her play it when opening for another artist at the Tuning Fork two years ago, and several times since. To my delight, the song is presented here nice and simply, mostly as it sounds live. The intimate-sounding acoustic guitar and vocal is left to speak for itself, with only some slight touches of double bass, strings and hand percussion. It’s a class-A example of Fullbrook’s songwriting, telling of a thought-provoking walk around an empty design school with a subtle touch of humorous skepticism - “There was fresh paint wet on the walls/everything was white/and all the clocks were well designed/all ticking in time”. Fullbrook is amused at “the ideal shape and make up of things”, and responds with an urge to burst through the ceiling and “raise glass to the sky”, shattering such perfection.
In Sparklers, another physical object kicks off a similar chain of inflection, as a sparkler reminds her of her own mortality and impermanence - “I felt our time was a running, a sparking sun/before we were dying, rained out, reaching for another one”. Musically, it’s a lovely floaty 6/8 folk song, Fullbrook’s neat fingerpicking complemented by nice dry tom drums.
After the first bunch of songs, the album makes a surprising change in a quite different direction to any previous Tiny Ruins project. Many tracks take on an almost futuristic sound, not in that they sound wildly experimental but in that they sound atmospheric and technicolour. This is given direction by Fullbrook’s contemplative querying of our technological future, in songs like Stars, False, Fading (“Could they take us out of here/in those flying machines?”) and Holograms (“I saw the grim reaper/and I gave him the slip/saved by a Darth Vader novelty helmet”.) The latter is particularly musically different from her usual acoustic balladry, drifting woozily along on reverb-drenched electric guitar and sparkling synthesizers. The vocals, usually so dry and intimate, are here treated in an uncharacteristic amount of reverb. It’s an interesting sonic change, but is almost too direct in its overall effect, and in its chorus. Points for the double-pun “Our lungs are sponges/they’re gonna wipe us out” though.
Indeed, the most direct and catchy choruses tend to belong to the weaker songs on the album, such as the surprisingly musically uninteresting single How Much (the squelchy bass part at the end is fantastically unexpected though.)
One Million Flowers, My Love Leda and Cold Enough To Climb all also boast this new atmospheric and spacey production, with grandiose full-bodied band instrumentation. They’re fine, but the other remaining tracks Kore Waits In The Underworld and Bounty remind me of the setting in which Fullbrook’s songs, and voice, sound best. Their production is much drier and earthier, and the instrumentation humbler. As a result, the songs speak louder. Kore is a beautiful child-like waltz, a pure slice of gentle summer dreaming, while Bounty is a gentler moodier ballad in the style of previous album Brightly Painted One.
Of course, I have to acknowledge how effective the vocals are on this album.
Fullbrook’s voice is the perfect antidote to all warbling over-singers past and present. Her fantastically under wrought but deliberate delivery makes every line inescapable and unmistakable, particularly when mixed up-front and dry in the more acoustic-based songs.
Listening to how that holding-back croon makes the chorus of School Of Design so much more impactful than it could have been. She sings the words themselves, not just the melodic syllables.
Olympic Girls has its fair amount of expansion and changes from Tiny Ruins’ previous work, particularly in the production department, and not all of it works. There are a few songs in which the more atmospheric and futuristic vibe detracts from the composition rather than embellishing it. But between these moments, the album comes loaded with some of the highest peaks of Fullbrook’s discography yet. And considering that discography, this is enough to weight the collection in my favour.
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Released: 01 Feb 2019