The Staves – Good Woman
Folk | Alternative
I’d say deep down we’re all creatures of habit. Whether we realise it or not we cling to structure, it’s in our nature to gravitate towards the familiar. We follow the same routines, keep making the same choices, because why risk changing when you’ve got a good thing going? The thing is, the world would never progress, and we would never grow as people, if we didn’t occasionally leave the familiar behind and tread uncharted ground. The universe seems acutely aware of this fact and often provides us with a firm push out of our comfort zones. Change breeds more change, and it’s very hard to just carry on as normal when something happens that shifts your entire perspective on life.
With Good Woman the Staveley-Taylor sisters found themselves at just such a crossroads. With a fine catalogue of folk records under their belt, characterised by their singular and ever-compelling harmonies, I doubt anyone would really have complained had they made another record in the same vein. But with a series of life-changing events in close succession – the loss of both their mother and grandmother, a difficult break-up for Camilla, and the birth of a daughter for Emily – it’s only natural that such a monumental shift would find itself reflected in their music.
Lyrically this is the sisters’ most personal record; the inevitable melting pot of confused thoughts and feelings bubbling its way to the surface. It’s an interesting mix of contradictions. The doubt and world weary sentiments of ‘Failure’ and ‘Trying’, and the pent up hurt and resentment of ‘Devotion’, contrasted by the fiery fightback of ‘Careful, Kid’ and the title track. The calls to embrace change and step out of the comfort zone on the soft acoustic folk of ‘Nothing’s Gonna Change’ juxtaposed by the desire to move at your own pace expressed on ‘Waiting On Me To Change’, with its piano tone reminiscent in places of Bruce Hornsby. It’s a record that pulls in many different directions, but it never feels scattershot or without purpose as all of its mixed signals still come from the heart. As far as the writing goes, this new level of candour really elevates the album, and I hope we see their newfound openness carry on into future releases.
Musically however it is definitely more of a mixed bag. Though their stunning vocal harmonies thankfully still take centre stage, The Staves’ usual warmth has been tempered here somewhat by a more cold and aloof production style courtesy of John Congleton. It gives their sound more of an indie and alternative spin, incorporating more expansive arrangements with subtle electronic elements and field recordings. In some places the two worlds collide in surprising ways that serve to grow and revitalise their sound. The cycling piano melody and driving beat of ‘Best Friend’ lend the track an energising sense of urgency, the wonderful emphatic bridge of ‘Next Year, Next Time’ seems to just materialise out of the ether, while album highlight ‘Satisfied’ boasts the album’s most gorgeous melodies and some guitar work reminiscent of The War On Drugs. In some instances however the stylistic gap seems too far too bridge and some of the charm is no longer there. The abrasive St Vincent style alt rock of ‘Careful, Kid’ feels awfully out of place, as does the doleful electronica of ‘Trying’, while the vocals at the beginning of ‘Paralysed’ feel a little lost in all the emptiness.
Good Woman feels like a snapshot of an important transition for The Staves, as you get chance to hear them shaking up the formula. In some cases it feels like too big of a step into a sound that doesn’t really suit them or play to their strengths – the fear of this kind of misstep being what keeps us locked in our routines in the first place. But we also get to hear a few flashes of brilliance where the gamble really pays off, a tantalising glimpse of a band pushing themselves towards bigger and better things in spite of everything they’ve been through. A brilliant reminder, if ever you needed one, that occasionally you need to trust in yourself and take the plunge into the unknown.