ALBUM REVIEW: Elle Mary & The Bad Men – ‘Constant Unfailing Night’

Elle Mary’s music is a beautifully expressed, carefully-crafted confrontation. That’s right. Her debut album under the name ‘Elle Mary & The Bad Men’ has seen her swap acoustic for electric, evade the barriers of genre and take on the ending of a relationship through rhythms which walk the tightrope of intensity and intimacy.

Listen to a series of simmering instincts, brought to balance by music. Every note is weighed with meaning, in an album which shows how minimalism can still have majesty and make sense of the sensations behind a break-up. It sets this Manchester-based musician’s debut out from so many other singer-songwriters who slam on the instruments, as if an attempt to prove the passion of their expression.

Elle Mary & The Bad Men bring an articulation which comes from the core – as the debut album ‘Constant Unfailing Night’ continues to prove through the duration of its nine tracks.

Falling‘ opens with a progression of guitar that’s tailored to an enduring bass note that lies beneath – a testament to the skilled symbiosis of Mary and the Bad Men’s partnership, each working to infuse the exploratory, undulating nature of her songcraft.

Instilling melancholy as she muses “I was twenty six” with thickening vocals, before the drums drive in and add emphasis to the lines, “I was a child”. She spreads out the vowels with a kind of jewelled quality, extending the note, followed by vocal flourishes which showcase her ability to use voice as an instrument in its own right. It allows her to evocatively draw on both past and the present, adding to a mood of turbulence. The sign of a musician committed to exposing and exploring struggle – and that’s a strength.

All of the tracks are notably over four minutes in length too – take the next, ‘No Baby’ which is more upbeat and an interesting contrast. We are lured into a slow sliding on guitar, a groove set steadily into bass before the lines begin on the subject of the “Old women said” – telling a story of the “Same old stench,” through a ruminating, well-rounded vocal. It’s as if you can feel her breath flicker on the microphone as she sings of “Holding me down/ Setting me straight.” This is a tune with a sure, sashaying quality to it, moving into a rousing guitar and drum outro, holding the note before a speedier jam at the end which goes out on another roll of drums. A surprise which satisfies, for sure.

Happiness’ follows with a deep grungy guitar note gripping the lines “Take your troubles” as she muses “Hang them up to dry” – it wobbles and echoes, yet continues with a darkly determined quality.  A distinct quality of the sound of Elle Mary & The Bad Men are those cleverly built-in silences too. The intrigue goes on, dwelling over the subject as slides of a guitar slip in like a scratching an unaddressed itch – and giving way to relief. Yes, “Happiness is a relief” – an easing of agitation rather than celebration, and highlighting that the concept of ‘happiness’ is not always overt, it may not necessarily be positive, it can even be cruel.

A track with a shorter feel is next, ‘Pretend,’ ruminating with circling guitar and extended, romantic vocals. A dreamy kind of quality. Through this she exposes the exaggerated stories and sensations which build intensity in relationships, lines like “And afterwards/ We won’t exist” and “We can pretend we’re dead” wielding it in an unabashed way. This is accompanied by an uneasy electric plash, which seems to unhinge the track at first before it builds in – but I think that is intentional, as it thickens to a circling, spiralling jam, telling of the coming together of two people in pretence. These are the type of connections, built on high expectations and indulgent imaginations which can drive us apart – something we seem invited to reflect upon during the fuzzy fade out.

But what happens after illusions and imaginations are shattered? Isolation is one such aspect – and something Elle Mary & The Bad Men seem to handle in an original and evocative way. ‘Dark’ opens with a dwelling almost hesitant guitar before a good kick of the drums comes in, as the subject sways into the realm of self-isolation and how it is “Easy now to just stay indoors” and “Settle down/ The night is yours.” Then there’s a clever progression of percussion which seems to slide through to emphasise the unpleasant emergence of emotion – being isolated isn’t a cure, it can still actually be damn painful.

As the lyrics evocatively reflect in their progression, it’s “Easier now to just fall apart,” the lines get more agonised and pained. This track, like ‘No Baby,’ incorporates an aspect of surprise – using cleverly coordinated spaces of silences, interludes of guitar and beat-led jamming with atmospheric minimalism. As she reflects towards the end of the track – “Always there to take me back” – this is sound showcasing layers of life and how we can be impacted by them.

But this is music not just made up of intelligently-built layers, but capable of billowing melodies too. Take the trio of tracks later into the album: ‘Ocean’, ‘Undead’ and ‘Behave.’ ‘Ocean’ begins like an early tide, turning slow-struck notes into a building beat. The guitar is heightened as the bass drum picks up speed, allowing us to draw parallels with the rising tide, the rising heartbeat. After all, the sheer majority of us have felt it – that surging tide of emotion and sensation simmering behind love and loss. It synchronises with the lyrics, “I used to be the ocean,” complete with another element of interest – this time the addition of harmonies which emphasise the fundamental personal connection here on many levels. Elle Mary & The Bad Men are clearly capable of creating tangible tracks which take on lived emotion.

Undead’ similarly synchronises rhythm to theme, but through the convention of another genre – in this way keeping the tracks distinct. It seems to be a return to those notes of slow country groove which remind me a little again of ‘No Baby’. There’s slower progression here, but this seems perhaps intentional as her weighted words wander over the subject of “I wait to find you undead” – emphasising an album which abashedly explores both the dangerous highs and lows of relationships, packed with a real sense of articulated loss. 

One of my personal favourites on the album however, is a track which animatedly expresses the scenario of an ex-lover coming back into our lives at a point which suits them – ‘Behave.’ The frustration in the tune is tangible – and so well-articulated. It starts on a sweet acoustic trill, an almost sweet-talking sound with fingers sliding on the fretboard.

Then comes in the accusation “You must of heard that I was doing fine,” driven by a close-recorded beat on the drums and fast-flowing lyrics which are accelerated, repeated and rousing. Bringing to light the type of person who surfaces because of hearsay and wanting to make an impact. How easily, frustratingly, it seems to happen is emphasised by harmonies and heated questions “Is this any way to behave? What have you learnt?”. It’s a penultimate piece of poignant feeling and an opportunity for empowerment which is welcome on an emotive album. It refreshingly isn’t all introspective.

The debut album ‘Constant Unfailing Night’ is released 9th March 2018 via Sideways Saloon / Kartel – and is available to pre-order here.

Find Elle Mary & The Bad Men on Facebook and Twitter.

Emily Oldfield
Lover of music, poetry and Manchester.

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