Amy Duncan – Antidote

Album Review | Filly Records | Review by Marc Higgins | Stars: 4/5

Amy Duncan is a Scottish singer songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, originally trained as a double bass player and Antidote is her sixth album. Built around recordings made in her own home, the music manages to sound intimate without ever feeling limited or lo-fi. A combination of Duncan’s wide musical palette, playing keyboards, guitars and double bass herself, a sure touch and Calum Malcolm’s studio mastery, also heard on The Blue Nile’s superlative Hats album, breathes life into the album. There is a sense of grace, space and deliberate understatement in common with The Blue Nile’s later albums. “Steady The Bow” opens the album, harp and Amy Duncan’s beautifully pure and emotive voice to the fore. There is a wonderfully folky traditional lilt to the lyric. Sue McKenzie’s cool saxophone twines with the music, ethereal and drifting, adding a jazz edge to acoustic music in a tradition that looks back to 60s legends like Pentangle and more recent genre straddling acts like Lammas. Whatever it’s called, this is music too broad to be pinned to just one label. Gentle percussion tinkles through the mix with shifting atmospherics and crowd sounds widening the space around the music. Train sounds, bird sounds and a sense of space open “The Journey” the found sounds illustrate the imagery of the song and help us inhabit the headspace of the writer. It is never forced or contrived, all the elements are perfectly balanced and become part of the musical whole. Amy Duncan’s vocal is sublime, folky to begin with before hitting a deep note that recalls classic Kate Bush, intimate, low and arresting. Describing the journey the arrangement shifts and changes alternating a more frantic pace with the Bush like passages. “The Severed Head” contrasts a dark metaphorical lyric with a languid guitar line that is jazzy and part Penguin Café Orchestra. Alison opens with pure atmospherics, as a ‘dopplered’ siren drifts between the speakers and just screams early morning city. Again Sue McKenzie’s saxophone is perfect in its ECM Garbarek iciness, adding another element to the scene being set. Against keyboards that are jazzy and vibes like, Amy’s lyrics are upbeat and positive. Duncan is open about the song writing being an attempt to explore her overcoming adversity in health and life, to find a way to move beyond a depressive cycle. The journey is physical as well as emotional, free to move around her home city of Edinburgh Amy made field recordings, these weave in and out of the music so we are very much part both journeys. The sense of movement is carried by frequent road noise and road imagery. Recording at home, with time and space, the sense of freedom spills into the music, the mood and the feel of the album. “Golden Fox” is another uplifting vocal that sings of freedom against a perfect cycling Bill Evans like piano. As well as being a superb vocalist, the playing on this track suggests there is a mean jazz or classical pianist in there too. So the grace of the glimpsed fox is suggested by an utterly captivating keyboard passage. Clearing describes another moment in time, continuing the same mood and almost the same song. Carried by the singing it is all very Zen as you are held in that second, cocooned and carried by wonderfully buoyant music. “This is the Road” pushes the tempo and is edgy by comparison with a higher saxophone, some frenetic piano and a Norma Winstone crystalline edge to the vocal. Determined to push on, the mood is determined and the music reflects that with a more barbed beauty. “Lost Balloon” and “Pieces of Me” both open with a very contemporary looped electric guitar line and a chorus of layered but perfectly phrased vocals. The balloon may be lost to its owner but Amy envies its height and escape, after the languid dawn of “Golden Fox” there is a sense of urgent energy. “The Caretaker” brims with the same energy, the mood upbeat, if the album is cathartic then a decision has been made this is a hymn to the certainty of positively travelling forward. “Antidote” carries the jazzy ambience and the certainty on. The atmospherics at the start become music and fade into a melodic Reich like marimba keyboard motif, minimal while the voice soars over the top, revealing the metaphorical significance of the plants pushing between the urban brickwork and pavers, they are green shoots. This is a glorious album, both understated and majestic, very much a quiet storm, as a singer songwriter looks at themselves and their world in a way that is engaging. The voice, the playing, the lyrics there is so much here to recommend.