In my many wasted hours watching Grand Designs, one of the things that has always struck me is the way that Kevin McCloud praises two exactly opposite things. One minute he’ll wax lyrical about the fact his ‘eye is drawn’ to a particular place in a room; the next he lauds the fact that his eye ‘doesn’t know where to settle’ so much is there to admire. Far from accusing McCloud of blatant hypocrisy, he reminds me of the difficult space that all art forms exist between maximalism and minimalism, complexity and simplicity. Rozi Plain – whose previous four releases have sought to meld folk with elements of electronic music – has previously found a pleasing balance, so well done are the stifled percussion, twinkling guitar and synth riffs, and soft vocals.
With the release of Prize, largely collaborated on with Alabaster de Plume, it was interesting to see whether she could continue in that vein. The album opens with ‘Agreeing for Two’, which starts with soft electronic sounds, builds into a more traditional folk verse, before rising into a chorus driven by synth riffs. The electro-folk combination is unusual in places but works incredibly well, so solid are the folk foundations of Plain’s vocals and guitar. The lyrics belie conflict and an erosion of self, emphasised by the refrain ‘If nothing will do’; the crowding of different musical elements adds to the sense of frustration we feel when people are ‘agreeing for you’. This song is a good bellwether for the rest of the album, especially in terms of the sound you can expect to hear: Rozi Plain’s calming voice, a pleasing folk thread, and miscellaneous electronic sounds to whet the ear.
Most of the songs in the album follows a similar pattern of layering more elements into it as it develops, whether it’s textured sounds, synth flourishes, or the swooning woodwind of Alabaster de Plume. To twist a Match of the Day cliché, each track felt like song of two halves. And it’s in this where I felt the album lost me a little: I preferred the first halves more often than not. So transfixing are the core elements of Rozi Plain’s music that to distract from them even slightly seems a bit of a waste. On the Kevin McCloud scale of ‘eye drawn to’ to ‘eye not knowing where to rest’, it feels like I’ve found the perfect vista to enjoy but there’s something in the periphery: nothing outlandish but a distraction nonetheless. When less is so good, less is definitely more.
Nowhere is this distraction clearer than in ‘Prove Your Good’. It starts with a downbeat guitar theme, subtle percussion, and a rumbling, low bass. It’s beautiful and ominous. Rozi Plain’s voice – with some lovely harmonies for good measure – added into this makes for a mesmerising mix. However, the song is interspersed with increasingly random electronic sounds and ends in a discordant mix of sound that seems at odds with the simplicity and beauty of the beginning of the song. There is a hideous irony to the question ‘Do you want more?’ being answered ‘Yes’ by the backing singers. Give me less.
That said, this is an album that keeps you interested and listening. For all my criticisms of overdoing some elements, there are moments of crescendo and layering that do work well in the album, ‘Sore’ and ‘Spot Thirteen’ have some nice accumulations of strings and woodwind respectively. But when you are as good a songwriter and singer and Rozi Plain, it seems a shame to hide that behind other noise.
Words by Joseph Hoare