REVIEW: Common Holly – When I say to you black lightning

On the opening track of Common Holly’s second album, When I Say To You Black Lightning, a pause opens up where Montreal indie folk singer Briggitte Nagar gently intones: “I’m sorry New York broke you, it cracked your stamina, I think perhaps it woke you, but now you’re lost in Canada.”

I’ve only visited New York once and have never been to Canada but that chorus hit me hard: three years ago London had broken me and I found myself lost in Stoke-on-Trent. Listening to Central Booking, I felt the confusion and sense of failure from that time and that there was someone who saw that, held it, and said “I’m sorry”.

There’s a spirit of kindness and an invitation to collaborate on meaning running throughout this beguiling, dark folk record in which Nagar and producer Devon Bate have created a space for the lost and hurt.

The album title alone indicates this, an unfinished sentence that the listener is welcomed into.

The songs are hauntingly beautiful with gamboling guitar trails and atmospheric sound textures. The melodies mark an experimentation and evolution from the 2017 album Playing House as crunchy tones and jarring chords chime with the emotional uncertainties Nagar explores. On Not Real, Nagar and a chorus of backing vocals repeat “It’s not real if I forget it” until the wheels fall off this chant for willed memory loss with clashing notes and guitar slides. Lyrical repetition combines with musical ambivalence in a way that feels interior and utterly resonant of the way thoughts play over and over and over in a distressed mind. The effect envelopes the listening of Not Real and Uuu in which Nagar stutter sings the phrases “don’t be afraid” and “don’t freak out” before the guitars break into a burst of melody, like the sky clearing.

Elsewhere there is a striking poetry in minimalist music boxes. Measured is sublime in its visceral imagery of relational struggle (“You unbuttoned your shirt and I looked at your heart/Then you showed me your lungs yeah you pulled them apart”). The lines are punctuated by bold three second pauses between the couplets, allowing the words to drop into silence. This is an album of spaces to fill; Nagar and Bate construct a framework that allows this space in a way that is both uncomfortable and comforting. There’s no wall of sound. Common Holly’s wall is more a moonlit hammock in a dark forest, rocking gently, occasionally jerking and thrashing, always enchanting.

The subject matter is often dark and tricky and Nagar’s intimate tones and sincerity marry perfectly with the sparse harmonic underworld. It doesn’t take itself too seriously either. Closing track Crazy OK has Nagar sweetly imploring “don’t leave me I’m crazy OK” over acoustic twirls before it breaks out into a cacophony of crashing chords, drums and cymbals. It’s OK Common Holly, we won’t leave you, we’re crazy too.


Words by Fliss Clarke.

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