Artist: Lizzie Nunnery
Album: Company of Ghosts
Company of Ghosts is Lizzie Nunnery’s debut album, and it’s not before time. Her previous two releases – Monkeys and Devils (2006) and Hungry (2008) – are both EPs. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against EPs, but listening to Lizzie’s (particularly Hungry) always leaves me wanting more. So it’s good to be treated to a full length album from Miss Nunnery, and what a treat it is too!
The album, released on Fellside Recordings, consists of twelve tracks in total, nine new songs plus three tracks from the Hungry EP. The album as a whole continues the musical direction set by Hungry, with low key, superbly written songs produced expertly by Wave Machines’ Vidar Norheim, whose influence not only as producer but also as musician, and co-composer on eight tracks, is unmistakable. [On a side note, it’s worth mentioning that Company of Ghosts is the third album from a local singer songwriter this year with ‘ghost’ in the title, following hot (cold?) on the heels of Alpha Ghost (Rachael Dunn) and Ghosts In The Shadows (Joseph Topping, also on Fellside). Spooky coincidence or the influence of the spirit world? I’ll let you decide!]
The album opens with a military drum beat, setting the scene for England Loves A Poor Boy, a song which tells the story of Ernest Marke who moved from Sierra Leone to Liverpool in 1917 aged just 14, and was enlisted into the navy when the war came along. At the end of the war Ernest was abandoned in Liverpool and was forced to make his own way in the world. The song picks up on issues surrounding race, duty, power, and country, with lines such as “There is no land for heroes here” echoing the origins of the modern day Hope for Heroes campaign.
The long, erie notes at the start of Hungry were created by Vidar playing a guitar with a cello bow. This is a song about longing, memory and those relationships that can never be, and the bowed guitar creates a sound which makes the aching and yearning almost tangible.
The ghosts on this album are the ghosts of history, the ghosts of lost relationships, the ghosts of memory… In the title track we find ourselves “down Huskisson Street in the company of ghosts, the sailors and the sorry men, gently remembering home” as the loved ones who are left behind share in a collective prayer for the safe return of those who are out at sea.
Exit Signs will undoubtably strike a chord with any long time musicians who have ever found themselves performing bad gigs in noisy bars to people who don’t want to listen. “They ate you whole, they crunched your bones, they made you old” says it all, and is just one example of the insightful and incisive lyrics that can be found throughout the album.
Lizzie describes Can’t Sleep as ‘a tainted love song to the city’, as we go walking through the dirty streets at dawn, observing the evidence left by the havoc of the previous night, before escaping to the hidden solitude of St James’ cemetery.
On His 60th Birthday is ‘an ode to the passing of time’ which sees Lizzie’s ukulele getting an outing for the first time. The song was inspired by a birthday party speech from someone who couldn’t understand what he’d done to deserve so many friends in his life, and who felt he has never given anything back to these relationships.
In addition to the ghost theme, this album contains plenty of Tales from the City (the title of a recent Almanac Folk night). England Loves A Poor Boy, Company of Ghosts, and Can’t Sleep are all set very firmly in the city. The next track, Pubs That Never Close, is a truly inspired song firmly in the Tales from the City category about those people whose lives are divided into either highs and lows; the highs being the exhilaration and escapism of weekend nights out on the town drinking and socialising, and the lows being the long back-down-to-earth periods in-between. In the second of the Hungry EP tracks Vidar’s bowed guitar makes a reappearance to great effect.
The Sleepers is the only track on the album that Lizzie didn’t write the lyrics to. It’s an adaptation of a ballad published in 1908 and found in a second hand bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland. The singer tells that although he’ll be buried in the ground when he dies he’s actually jealous of those who have drowned at sea and longs for his eternal rest to be “with just a counterpane of foam between me and the sky” and ships and boats passing overhead on their voyages around the world. Another song spent in the company of ghosts.
First Time Lucky is a surprisingly up-tempo number compared with the preceding songs, with a simple ukulele and percussion accompaniment supporting the notion that less is more. Despite the faster beat the song is still firmly planted on the melancholic side of the street as the singer is desperate to find out what they have to do to please their lover as they long for the relationship’s pivotal moment when ‘the drums kick in’ and they ‘write our names in the sky’. Listening to the song we’re faced with the possibility that it might never happen.
Don’t Dream Of Me was written when Lizzie was seventeen, and is a defiant love song by someone who is pushing love away, not wanting to give it a chance due to the fear of being hurt.
Concertina is the last of the tracks from the Hungry EP and was the first song Lizzie wrote for the ukulele. The opening plucked ukulele creates a real music box feel showing Lizzie’s confidence and competence on the instrument, and proving that it’s far from being a novelty instrument when place in the hands of an accomplished musician. The song itself is written from the point of view of someone who is so close to another person that they can see all the details and hidden signs that others miss.
Lizzie played Lullaby For Alice at a recent Almanac Folk night at Mello Mello, and as she sang it Tom, who was standing next to me, leaned over and said “that’s my daughter she’s singing about” as he beamed with justifiable pride. But this isn’t just a lullaby about a baby – I’m not sure Lizzie ever would or could write anything like that. Instead, the song tells of the weight of responsibility to the future and the past that is felt be new parents.
Plenty of reviews have been written about Lizzie Nunnery’s previous recordings and live gigs, and many of them comment on Lizzie’s voice as being the defining feature. I beg to differ. Highly distinctive though her voice is, in my view it’s the songs, the lyrics, the music and arrangements, that define the success of this album. Lizzie writes about real life and is never formulaic or predictable. She’s not afraid to take a subject, scratch off the glossy veneer to expose the truth underneath, however ugly, distasteful or lamentable it might be. And this is an album written in and from the heart of Liverpool, showing aspects of the past and present of our edgy city in ways that other songwriters can only dream of being able to do. Company of Ghosts oozes atmosphere and wistful charm, and is a real joy to listen to.
Lizzie is an extremely talented songwriter and performer, and with Company of Ghosts we are presented with a collection of songs that showcase this talent perfectly. Let’s hope that being signed to Fellside will enable her songs to be appreciated by a much wider audience so she gets the recognition she so rightly deserves.
Company of Ghosts is released on Monday 26th April and is available to buy from the following places.
© 2010 Graham Holland – graham[at]liverpoolacoustic.co.uk
Liverpool Acoustic – liverpoolacoustic.co.uk
Lizzie is playing the following gigs locally in May.
The Company Store, with The Sixteen Tonnes, The Travelling Band, & The Red Suns
Saturday 1st May @ The Zanzibar
8pm start, tickets £6 myspace.com/liverpoolcompanystore
Headline act for Liverpool Sound City
Wednesday 19th May @ Leaf Cafe
detail TBC liverpoolsoundcity.co.uk/gigsearch