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Just a few weeks separated the release dates of Sorcha Richardson and Aoife Nessa Frances’ latest albums – very handy as it allows me to get both artists into a single column. The records are, of course, separate entities, but being gifted two Irish album-of-the-year contenders in quick succession provides an opening to reflect on Dublin indie excellence. To be a guitar music fan living in the city is to be adjacent to innovation.
I mean, I could this month have covered Gilla Band’s third album Most Normal, which was recently granted Pitchfork’s much-coveted Best New Album status and is probably the first record to reference Spar to do so. (I’ll briefly tell you what I think of it anyway: that album shreds!) The relentless critical acclaim bestowed on the post-punk group formerly known as Girl Band make them something of a spearhead and vanguard of this recent rush of thrilling Dublin artists. Throw in Fontaines D.C., Pillow Queens, Ailbhe Reddy, and more than a few others and it feels like something is happening in the capital.
So, Sorcha Richardson, a Dalkey native. The excellent Smiling Like an Idiot is her second album after the 2019 release of First Prize Bravery. Richardson has offered a handy descriptor of her music for newcomers, calling it “narrative confessional dressed up in alternative indie”. These confessionals come in writing that can feel emotionally precise and richly detailed. Richardson uses little features to help build the world: a television illuminating a dark room, an old out-of-tune piano sitting in the corner. As she sings, you can see the light and feel the dust.
The guitars on opener “Archie” bear a Nashville lilt as Richardson remembers being 17 and meeting a boy. She clutches memories of their time together like a fistful of Polaroids, and gets wistful about losing contact with him. The song captures the effect that seemingly inconsequential experiences we have as kids can have on the rest of our lives.
“I feel like some of the relationships we have when we’re teenagers feel very potent,” Richardson, who is 32 years old, has said of the song. I’m reminded here of Frank Ocean’s Blonde, an album of songs about disappearing youth, innocence, and love from a man not yet old, but saying goodbye to an important period of his life.
“Archie” is the first evidence of the slight sense of internal disharmony that punctuates Richardson’s approach. “Purgatory” appears to be about not breaking off an unhappy relationship she knows must end. The singer describes smiling through the unease – anything to avoid being upended by a split. “A broken heart is gory, baby, lay with me in purgatory.” Smiling Like an Idiot is loaded with relentless analysis of brief moments that, if they had gone differently, could have drastically changed Richardson’s present life and self.
Accentuating the lyrics is Richardson’s suave performance. Her voice is a rich, smoky thing. Pop songs like “Good Intentions” rely on her natural feel for melody as she sings over unfussy guitar chords and hand claps. The underpinning synths of “Shark Eyes” offer some of the pomp of 1980s pop production, tugging the nostalgic impulses of those who lean towards the gentler side of Duran Duran and Pet Shop Boys. “Jackpot” is a great Bon Iver song. But whatever the tone, Richardson’s performance is wrapped in fine robes. Smiling Like an Idiot is very easy to listen to, but rewards close examination.
In spring of 2020, the wake of the release of her debut album Land of No Junction, Aoife Nessa Frances left Dublin city and moved to County Clare to work on the songs that would become its follow up Protector. “I might have been running away from my problems,” she admits in press notes. “I was disconnected from myself and from nature, but I found peace far away from the city, where there were no distractions. I isolated myself with nothing to do but make music.”
Of course, the timing means Frances began work on Protector during the initial Covid restrictions, no doubt accentuating this isolation. The result is a gloriously soft and atmospheric piece, enamored with the gently psychedelic side of both 1960s folk and 1980s dream pop. The arrangements, though, are not austere. Recording actually took place in a small house in County Kerry, at the foothills of the Annascaul, with a band that included multi-instrumentalist and producer Brendan Jenkinson.
Protector, out this Friday, glitches into life with “Way to Say Goodbye”. The first second is so off kilter that it feels like you’re being placed right in the middle of the song – like a dream, because nobody remembers the beginning of a dream. Frances even invokes slumber as she sings about a missing presence in her life: “Early morning comes again/ I’ve been dreaming all this time/ For too long, where are you?”
The slithering guitar play on “Way to Say Goodbye” is reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour. If you’re looking for modern analogs, Frances’ vocals lean even further into Beach House singer Victoria Legrand’s style than before. Adding a thick coat of organ over “This Still Life” to help invoke a romantic sense of longing moves Frances even closer to the Baltimore band. Protector will scratch the itch for people who miss their older stuff.
Feelings of isolation continue to colour the album. Frances swims in the conceptual depths of water on “Emptiness Follows”: “The weight of the water/ It holds you and tortures time away from me.” But it’s one of the more upbeat depictions of loneliness thanks to Conor O’Brien’s soaring horn arrangements. Then there is “Soft Lines”, the graceful and slow-moving instrumentation complements the theme as Frances counts the slow-moving hours while wishing she could spend eternity with a particular loved one.
There are some minor setbacks. The arrangement of “Only Child” is narrow, so it struggles to justify its 7-minute run time. But set your lens to a wider shot and any music-crit grumbles fade. Bottom line: This is a strong second full-length to add to Frances’ discography; proof that whatever the origin story of the record, her comfort zone is wherever she is making music.