Charlie Hilton is probably best known as the singer of Blouse, however she is now stepping out as a solo artist in her own right. The majority of her album was produced by Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Jacob Portrait, and it also features contribution from Mac De Marco and Woods’ Jarvis Taveniere.
Discussing her latest record, Charlie came up with this rather excellent quote, “the music on this record is diverse, but so is the inside of a person. I feel like I’m many people”. Certainly this is a record that doesn’t rest on it’s laurels or settle on a particular sound, it takes in a variety of genres; The Young combines minimal electronica and smoky bar room jazz with surprisingly palatable results, 100 Million a duet with Mac De Marco is a sun-drenched acoustic pop number, whilst title track Palana sounds quite a bit like Nico fronting Beach House. Ambitious and diverse, the varied cuts on the record are pinned together throughout by Charlie’s haunting vocals, at times pained and emotive, at others strong and cold, they’re unquestionably the star of the show.
Charlie is based out of the legendarily hip enclave of Portland, Oregon. The 28th biggest city in America, Portland has gained a reputation for it’s liberal political values as parodied in the comedy series Portlandia. This is a far cry from it’s reputation at the start of the 20th century, when it was considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world; a hub for organised crime, racketeering, gambling dens and bordellos, we can only imagine it was much like modern day Portsmouth. Luckily for Portland, hippies happened and with the counterculture spilling over from San Francisco, the city became famous for its social activism, food cooperatives and “psychedelic culture” (read recreational drug use if Conservative). Portland also became well known as a city of music; from The Kingsmen in the 1960’s through to hardcore punk from The Wipers and Poison Ideas in the 1980’s and a multitude of grunge bands. In more recent years the city has given us the likes of Alela Diane, Blitzen Trapper and Laura Veirs.
Blouse formed back in 2010, and released two albums both via Capture Tracks, the label are also putting out Charlie’s solo material, with her debut album released last month.
The album’s title, Palana, is lifted from Charlie’s Sanskirt name, a part of her identity which she shed after high school and embraced the androgynous title Charlie; and it’s identity that is at the heart of this album. It’s a record about change and personal discovery, most obviously on the opening title track Charlie notes, “I needed to go somewhere, I needed to become someone else”. Throughout the record though there are references to discovering who you are, and to putting your faith in people who can help you on your journey to discovering yourself.
What stands out more than anything on this album is the musical journey, this is a record that seems to experiment with Charlie’s sound, flitting from genre to genre, sometimes harking back to her work with Blouse but never for long enough to feel like this a record that is anything other than the vision of a singular artist. It also helps that the music is for the most part excellent. Recent single Pony is a big, bold, psych-pop song, all clanging electric guitars over warm beds of synths and contrastingly energetic drums, Something For Us All and Lets Go To A Party recalls the icy electronica of Ladytron, whilst the title track Palana is a jarring blast, uniquely odd production taking it from a gently finger picked lullaby, into an arresting wall of harsh noise with little in the way of warning.
The most interesting moments on the record are probably the ones where Charlie steps a long way out of her comfort zone. Funny Anyway recalls The Velvet Underground at their most tuneful, placing Charlie’s vocal against minimal strings and a gently plucked acoustic guitar, it sounds beautifully sad; the detached vocal somehow seems to carry the weight of the world. The Young is beautiful, the gently smoky saxophone wouldn’t sound out of place on David Bowie’s Blackstar, whilst the heartbreaking electronics recall the more recent out put from Emmy The Great.
Best of all is No One Will, with stabs of piano and lightly jazzy guitars it’s a quietly heartbroken love song, like Cate Le Bon before her Charlie seems able to sing of heartache with a voice that carries an emotive punch whilst simultaneously sounding distant, as if she’s biting her lip and refusing to let her voice quiver, Charlie concludes “you’re the only thing that I believe in” before a wave of rapidly bowed strings finish the track without her. It’s a hairs on the back of the neck, tears in everyone’s eyes, moment of real, and very raw, beauty.
There’s tracks here that don’t quite work, the likes of WHY and Snow, add little and distract a little from the albums flow. Throughout it’s a record that seems to come with its guard up, by flirting with so many styles and ideas, it does at times leave you as a listener feeling that you’ve learnt nothing about Charlie Hilton, neither as a musician nor as a person. As the Herman Hesse quote that inspired the album says, “Man is not by any means of fixed and enduring form…he is much more an experiment and a transition….”, and perhaps this feels like an album of transition, one that acts as merely a series of hints of what Charlie Hilton is capable of in the future, and that’s very exciting indeed.
Palana is out now via Captured Tracks.