THIRD GIRL FROM THE LEFT - OXYGEN (ep Jan 2021)
Breathe... Breathe in the air
Oxygen! Essential for life on our little planet, and fortunately for us the third most abundant element in the universe, so that's pretty nice. Here's something else that's pretty nice too, and it's a particular treat for lovers of Portishead and Polly Scattergood... and err... probably Kate Bush.
Nichola Jane Swann, denizen of Devonshire and maker of music under the moniker THIRD GIRL FROM THE LEFT, has just released a thoroughly outstanding debut EP. And, smile at the synchronicity here, it's called Oxygen. Oxygen! I think it may have left me a little light-headed.
When I came across this EP it was probably the word OXYGEN that caught my attention. Hah! I remember thinking. What's JEAN MICHEL JARRE been re-releasing lately? Laughably, I'd forgotten that JEAN MICHEL had popped an E onto the end of his Oxygen. He's probably popped a few 'E's in other places too, but that's another story - and anyway - this little missive has nothing whatsoever to do with said erstwhile electronic music entrepreneur of the seventies...
In contemplating that particular Frenchman, I was at once motivated to consider another. I'm re-reading SWANN'S WAY by MARCEL PROUST. Again, notwithstanding the name SWANN, there's little connection to the matter in hand.
There’s this famous bit in it that’s widely known (but possibly only in literary circles and school classrooms) as ‘the Madeleine Moment’ (scientific term = involuntary explicit memory). It's a kind of euphoria, experienced when a particularly powerful memory is triggered by a sensory experience; like when a certain song reminds you of your first teenage romance!
So here I am, having my very own Madeleine Moment, and it's all bright lights and Babooshka as Oxygen brings back memories of the Kate Bush album 'Aerial'. It was 2005, and it'd been some twelve years since 'The Red Shoes'. The anticipation was unbearable. Rumours were shooting around like startled pheasants, and when it arrived, big, bold, and beautiful; a massive slab of progressive pop creativity, I was entranced, captivated, a feeble fanboy forever.
This Third Girl EP has taken me back to 2005 - shot me there on a rocket ship in fact! Why though? Is this character at all comparable to Kate Bush? Interestingly, I'm able to test this theory as follows... My other half's reaction towards anything Kate Bush is habitually extreme and murderous. This is no reflection upon either Kate Bush or indeed upon my dear wife. It's just that, at some high point in our marriage I'd mentioned, injudiciously as it turned out, that Kate Bush was the only other woman in the whole world that I'd ever have counted myself happy to espouse. This somewhat candid disclosure did not go down well. No, indeed it did not! Sadly my darling wife is at work today, and I find myself therefore unable to progress that element of the investigation towards any sort of conclusion for now.
To my ears though, there are tiny vibes of Kate Bush woven throughout this EP; the chatter of invisible birds in Aerial's 'Endless Sky of Honey' and Third Girl's 'Oxygen', is suggestive, and the banjo in 'Sylvan' seems to leave the trenches a little like 'Army Dreamers'. Oxygen communicates the gossamer shifts of summer every bit as well as does Kate's Aerial, yet I'd say that Third Girl's music is probably more immediate, probably more (dare I say) modern, probably more Polly Scattergood in fact...
Title track Oxygen is a treasure. 'For some reason, there’s not been light. No connection, nor satellite’. Just a few simple words, yet a metaphor to encapsulate our collective experience of the last twelve months. To me, that’s poetry. There’s a genuine intimacy in the delivery; a scratchy, breathy, whispery vocal that feels as if it’s delivered straight into your head, no ears necessary.
Yet for all that, the song is surprisingly rhythmic. It's driven by a prominent electronic drumbeat and a persistent little guitar that nips at your ankles like next door's Jack Russell. There's a real live drummer in there too, skittering thoughtfully around that main pulse as the bass brings things together. Finally, ethereal pads, field recordings, and reverse harmonies envelop the whole shebang in a ghostly silver shimmer.
An earlier reviewer commented on the song's unusual 6/8 triplet time. It's something that confers a very distinctive feel. Here's my take on it. Yes, the underlying percussion rhythm throughout is in quick 6/8, but then the song lays a slower rhythm on top based on the 2 beats in the bar (6/8 being a "compound time" version of 2/4 - say 1 to 6 quickly but emphasise 1 and 4 to find the beats). And the phrasing of the melody is irregular, not in standard 4 bar grouping and with loads of rests, so not something you could easily whistle! It's altogether very clever, or a very happy accident.
Sylvan, track two, takes us into different territory. Almost Americana. Slightly sinister! It's a dreamlike song; rural, rustic, pastoral, but with a rich and impressive vocal gliding and sliding over the measured and deliberate progress of a beautifully bucolic banjo - it's actually an antique Zither Banjo; very popular in England in the late 1800s to early 1900s apparently. "My partner surprised me with the best birthday gift ever!!...this wonderful zither banjo, and I just had to write a song for it."
There's more poetic reflection in penultimate track Strange Times.
'wicked wind doth blow
silent creeps the hour
and deadly as a kiss
opens like a flower'
Well, we're all living in strange times, but musically can things get any darker? Yes, they can! Shimmering cymbals balloon between heaven and hell, like sea swell before a storm; this song's been described elsewhere as 'a Tarantino inspired meander through the half-light between dusk and dawn'.
Strange sounds for strange times.
The golden, effervescent, fearlessness of a perfect sunrise... Last track 'The Rising' has Third Girl affirming that humanity and nature are one. Describing the restorative power of a perfect sunrise, this gentle piano ballad dances so lightly that it hardly touches the floor. It's an excellent way to end this wonderful musical adventure. It's a warm breeze in a miserable winter, a song that will hold your hand until the doctor arrives.
Then the door opens. It's the trouble and strife. "My God, I need a gin." and then "Jesus, you know I hate Kate Bush."
Hah, you know my methods, Watson!
Find THIRD GIRL by following these links