reviewed by Ben Hogwood
What’s the story?
The return of Dot Allison is big news indeed. Heart-Shaped Scars is her first album release since 2009, a follow-up of sorts to that year’s Room 7 1/2. Allison secured something of a cult following for her work in the early 1990s with Andrew Weatherall as part of dance band One Dove, before moving onto a solo career with the Afterglow album in 1999. For her new work, however, Allison has more or less pressed pause on the electronic side of things, removing drums too, working with producer Fiona Cruickshank and with several songs orchestrated by Hannah Peel.
It is, she says, a record about ‘love, loss and a universal longing for union that seems to go with the human condition’. Ideal, then, for a generation emerging from more than a year of lockdown conditions.
What’s the music like?
‘Ethereal’ is an over-used word in music reviews, but it is wholly applicable here. Allison’s voice is the principle reason, delivering the words in hushed tones but wholly immersed in the stories she has to tell. Hannah Peel’s orchestrations are another, sensitively complementing the melodies with thoughtful additions of their own, knowing when to hang back so that music keeps its concentrated intimacy.
The music often feels sparse and ‘old’ – in the sense that the melodies feel like part of a land with a great deal of history. Long Exposure embodies this approach, while Can You Hear Nature Sing does so with its lyrics, celebrating the natural world as many more of us have done during the pandemic.
Lyrically, Allison paints vivid pictures and emotions. One Love – which would surely have been a dance anthem with that title 30 years ago – is now a vulnerable soul at the start of a relationship, two cellos dovetailing as Allison tells the story. The Haunted draws the ear closer. ‘Step inside this haunted house’, sings Allison in lower tones at the start, the melody resembling a slower folk tune while the string harmonics shimmer in the middle ground.
Constellations tells of a wide-open freedom, the author lying ‘still in the lake, floating on my back, gazing up at all the stars’ – painted by a twinkling piano figure and shimmering strings. While this has a certain reassuring quality, Forever’s Not Much Time is truly haunting. ‘I miss you, like a dead man recalls life’, sings Allison, as a shiver passes over the face of the music. Cue The Tears has a similar chill. ‘Did we shut out the sun?’, asks the chorus.
Does it all work?
It does. Some of the songs are longer structures, and most are slow in their movement, but Allison makes them work, the music drawn out exquisitely with sensitive orchestration and backing vocals. Listening conditions will make a big difference to your enjoyment of the album, though – with a quiet room or headphones advised for maximum impact.
Is it recommended?
Wholly. If you have Dot Allison’s body of work already, then this will mark the start of a new chapter in the story of her music. If you are new to her sound, then it is a great place to start, a place of storytelling through simple and directly effective means – just like the best folk music.