Best known for her wonderful collaborations with fellow Irish musician Damien Rice, folk singer Lisa Hannigan is now a fully fledged solo artist. However badly her relationship with Rice ended, it has certainly generated a keen and determined motivation. Her debut Sea Sew, complete with her own embroidery of dice on the cover, was released in Ireland and the US in 2008. A US tour with Jason Mraz followed, earning Hannigan crucial exposure and marking her place on the musical map. It is strange that we have had to wait until now for the album to be released in the UK, but in 2009, here it is. And expectation makes way for ultimate disappointment. Like the natural forces it professes to aspire to, Sea Sew crashes and swells, then ripples and subsides into a flat mill pond.
Opener Ocean And A Rock is a mesmerising metaphor-filled love song, with Hannigan's delicious musical vocals delivering such wonders as "...I feel you in the pocket of my overcoat...my fingers wrap around your words and take the shape of games we play" followed by "I spoon you into my coffee cup; spin you through a delicate wash...I wear you all day". She conveys a level of depth and involvement Dido can only dream about. There are clear Damien Rice influences in the darker moments and Hannigan's band for Sea Sew impressively includes Cathy Davey providing backing vocals, and Vyvienne Long and Tom Osander borrowed from Rice; they provide a wealth of talent and deep resonating music from the start. Venn Diagram, proving that even the most simple of subjects can inspire an idea, is equally as effective. Sitting somewhere between Marianne Faithful and Martha Wainwright, Hannigan delivers a wordless vocal chorus that gets darker and more menacing at each visit. Musically the delicate brass is a wonderful touch.
Sea Song is softer and whimsical, with an almost Eastern European Romany folk sound. If anything it becomes a relentless ramble but is over before it has a chance to become a distraction. But the signs of decent are becoming clear. From here Splishy Splashy (a contender for worst song title of the decade, let alone the year) is a horribly dull nursery rhyme. It is all a bit too light and airy with little substance. Thankfully this leads to the best song on the album: I Don't Know mimics Edie Brickell at her magnificent best. The sensual charm of this folk-pop love song is an instance highlight and some of the best song writing: "If you eat what you've been given, or push it round your plate...I'd like to cook for you all the same...I would want you, I am game" captures the innocent recollections of Kate Rusby. What emerges is an engaging mix of instruments, some more great brass and a slightly wild liberated ending. Excellent.
Completely different, but almost as good, Keep it All is dark and haunting, cold yet emotional. The song is all sharp edges and angles complete with buzzing Stylophone and a busy multi-layered outro. Compelling stuff. The Bert Jansch cover Courting Blues, also covered by Nick Drake, is not as out-of-place as it could be - treated with respect but with the now familiar Hannigan stamp. On the down side, it does drift away into wordless vocals and too much 'atmosphere'. Pistachio is another low, with an attempt at the same empty chorus formula, all sound and no substance. It could easily be Jack Johnson and a horrible turn for the worst. Expecting a final lift, Teeth is the big bold ballad. No structure but plenty of emotion and huge sweeping movements. Hannigan's vocals, however, are superb. But it is the start of another, and final, down turn.
The final song on Sea Sew should be a worthy closer but Lille is a limp reworking of Coldplay's Kingdom Come, with toy instruments and simple plucked strings. It is clear why this was a free download lead single. The attempt at a delicate production makes for a frustrating listen and the subdued ending to such an annoying collection of ebbs and flows is worthy of the oceanic theme. Obvious as the comparison sounds, and maybe that was the idea, it fails to make an impact musically and suffers from under-ambition.
There is much more to Lisa Hannigan than just a musician living in the shadow of Damien Rice, but to reach her full potential, she really needs to step out into the new light. There are flashes of brilliance on Sea Sew but most of it is way too comfortable. The tendency to fill empty spaces with wordless vocals, the overuse of brass sections, an atmosphere created by low bass strings - all become too obvious. In spite of a promising start and four great songs, not enough happens with the remainder. It is a shame as there is evidence of well crafted, lovingly conceived and genuinely thought-out ideas on Sea Sew. But only half of it truly translates into a great album.
-- CS (for The Music Magazine)