at The Yorkshire House, 29 July 2012
Reviewed by Marion Dawson
The poster for Tiny Ruins' Lancaster gig features a quote from Radio 6 DJ Tom Ravenscroft's blog that makes me bristle with rage. Tiny Ruins is in his favour because she 'manages to avoid the applied angst that so often ruins the work of British female singer-songwriters ' apparently. Perhaps some singer-songwriters are guilty of piling on the angst in a bid to get sympathy or appear interesting in the absence of talent, but this is hardly exclusive to the female gender. It’s a bit disheartening that this was reproduced on the gig poster as some sort of compliment. A bit like saying, ‘She’s good… for a girl’. Why not just say she’s good? Cos she is.
I hesitate to call New Zealand's Tiny Ruins (tinyruins.com) a singer-songwriter. Although, I guess, she does sing and write songs. But there is something a little bit unusual and otherworldly about her music which makes me unwilling to use that hackneyed title. Her songs do come with stories – excellent, otherworldly stories, like the priest who jumped off a cliff with helium balloons (he was never seen again). Or how about the 'dead Russian', unnamed, whose last act was to order champagne? Or the mysterious woman who 'lives in the Adelphi apartments' and 'reads Cannery Row before saying goodnight to the highway'. They are stories that intrigue and spark the imagination. But satisfyingly, they are also mostly true. Hollie Fullbrook's use of language is creative and well-honed, without being overly romantic or obscure. As in all the best stories and songs, every word and note serves a purpose.
This could also be said of her music. With just one acoustic guitar, backed with double bass, Tiny Ruins does that canny musician's feat of making the difficult look effortless. Her guitar finger picking is subtle and extremely skilled, using a capo to utilise all of the instrument's tonal range. My favourite songs are at the higher end, evoking the sound of a mandolin or plucked violin. Her vocals, like her songs, have a touch of Joanna Newsom about them, but are less affected. You feel she is being herself, and the little stories from her life between songs sustain that impression. Everyone is beguiled.
Cass Mitchell on the double bass doesn't say much, but her occasional vocals are rich and full, adding just the right amount of warmth to Hollie's pared down songs. The double bass is barely noticeable much of the time but this is probably a compliment, meaning that it gels perfectly with the guitar, adding a subtle and necessary note of rhythm.
Cass and Hollie are shyly complimentary about Lancaster, saying they'd like to come back. The response from this tiny but devoted crowd is adoringly enthusiastic. The album I bought on the door, 'Some were meant for sea', is just as compelling as the live performance. Coincidentally, I used to live with two people called Hollie and Cass. If only they had played beautiful acoustic music instead of arguing all the time about the central heating bill!
Tiny Ruins is supported tonight by an impressively large Lancaster cast. Unfortunately, it was a 6.30pm start, and as my brother was visiting I missed Gareth Williams and only caught the end of Kristi Michele's set (soundcloud.com/kristimichele). Her melancholy acoustic songs are atmospheric and she has a strong, interesting voice. I preferred her last song, for which she was joined, excitingly, by a friend on sitar. But what I saw of her set was a bit repetitive for me, both lyrically and musically. I would have found her songs more enjoyable if they were half as long – but that's just a matter of taste.
After Kristi, Turnstone (soundcloud.com/turnstone) stepped on stage to augment the evening with an impressive variety of instruments: guitar, bongos, fiddle and trumpet, as well as 'traditional' drum-kit. Not all of these instruments were played at the same time, which meant that each of their songs had quite a different sound. I thought the fiddle worked best with the two women's voices, as although I love a trumpet in a rock band, the Mexican feel they were going for on those tracks just didn't work for me. There was some skilled playing all round though and it was nice to hear two very different voices working together. My brother thought that a tension between the two women added interest, but I must admit I didn't detect any! The band's sunny disposition and musical flavour had me completely hoodwinked. But then he also said that I missed their best song (the last one) while I was on the toilet. So maybe he was making that up.
Turnstone's music is perfect for long, summer evenings, so it's a shame that we don't get so many of these! But then we can always hide from the rain in the Yorkshire House. Long may ECP Promotions gigs there continue (ecppromotions.webs.com).