Review Summary: Some incredible vocals mixed with some gorgeous lyrics and instrumentation make Half These Songs Are About You one of the most tantalizing insights into what could have followed of all time. As it stands, however, it's a flawed masterpiece of a folk album
So, Nizlopi. Despite having incredibly little commercial success over the course of their short career, they did have a hit single in the form of 'The JCB Song.' And this seems to have put a lot of people off of them for good. Whilst their bouncy hit is fairly indicative of the quality of the rest of the album, it was overplayed to the point of annoyance after its release a few years ago, so that even mentioning the name 'Nizlopi' would guarantee you getting a look suggesting you say no more. That's a real shame, because, for people who did give the whole album a listen, they found one of the most surprising, sincere and heartwarming folk albums of the last few years.
There are a lot of different moods to be found on HTSAAY, and it's largely down to the hugely underrated vocals of singer Luke Concannon. Like so many great folk vocalists before him, his strength isn't in his range or his vibrato, or any other form of vocal acrobatics, it's in the depth of emotions conveyed simply through his regular voice, even if he's singing some of the album's more basic melodies. Tracks like 'Girls' and 'Sing Around It' showcase his considerable talent, with the former particularly being the highlight of the whole album. There are, naturally for a debut album, a few mi***s; bouncier numbers such as 'Call It Up' and 'Love Rage On' are adequate, but once can tell that Concannon isn't suited to the more poprock style of singing, so these tracks come off as feeling slightly false, compared to the genuine feeling displayed on the more traditional numbers.
Luckily, most of the album is rooted in this slower, folkier style. The instrumentation supplied by the band's friends on this album helps to build up the sound considerably from their sparser live shows; violins, pianos, guitars, fiddles, bodhrans and more are all present here, which makes for a suprisingly layered production for such a low budget. Not that the core duo need it; John Parker, the double bassist, manages to remain pleasingly audible, no matter how dense the mix. His basslines help to ground the jazzier pieces such as 'Faith,' giving them a solid backbone for Concannon's vocals to shine over. 'Faith' itself is one of the most demonstrative tracks for the band's talents; a gorgeous guitar riff is complemented by calming piano, and Concannon delivers another exemplary performance, reciting the breathtaking lyrics with such feeling, that you'd be hard pressed to fault the band after hearing it, even if you had heard, and hated, JCB beforehand.
The lyrics are a facet of the album worth returning to; whilst songs like 'Freedom' and 'Wash Away' are more than solid enough musically to be able to survive with a so-so set of lyrics, the band delivers in this respect perhaps more than they do anywhere else on the album. Gorgeous poetic phrases mingle with colloquialisms to stunning effect, and, once again, Concannon's voice is the perfect one to convey the mix of despair and faint hope, which is the overall tone of the album. Lines such as 'crying at the sad stories in the paper and on the news, then I gather up the scattered blessings and bring them back to you,' are, for lack of a more manly word, 'lovely' enough to have even the most hard-hearted listener swooning at their delivery.
It might seem like I'm going a bit overboard on my praise for this album, and maybe I am. But it just seems like such a crime that Nizlopi actually did have a chance for critical and commercial recognition, which was then swept away from them due to one (incredibly slightly) annoying lead single. The album has a couple of songs more in that vein, but the pervading sound is a beautifully balanced folk band, with lyrics even more touching than their contemporaries in the genre (even you, Bon Iver) at their peak, before their second album and subsequent breakup destroyed any chance for a second masterpiece; and a flawed masterpiece, though its strengths far outweigh its two weak tracks, is exactly what Half These Songs Are About You is.