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Elizabeth Bryson's Reflections in my Tea • 2012 CD

Reviewed by Roland from BtP

Like so many Procol Harum fans who visit these webpages, my awareness of Elizabeth Bryson dawned with her contributions to the second and third Palers’ Project albums in 2004 and 2006: the warm yet fragile voice, the vigorous yet precise solo piano, and of course the bold ear that radically reinterpreted the shape of certain Brooker/Reid songs without sacrificing any of their 'Procolosity'.

As the editor or compiler of those 2CD albums, I sent a few messages over to Elizabeth, in the USA, and in the ensuing years I’ve had quite a few back: discussions of various digital pianos; CDRs of new songs; mp3s of variant mixes; news about the progress of her live gigs. I've been struck by the melodic inventiveness of her tunes and impressed by her appetite for setting some classic wordsmiths – notably Byron – in addition to her own, often intensely personal lyrics.

Now, at last, her first professionally-recorded and -released CD is in the online stores: Reflections in My Tea. Though it is a solo album, in the sense that Elizabeth has written all of it (bar one lyric), it is also a collaboration, with her very inventive producer, Scot Sax, at Songlife Studios in Ardmore, PA. A fluent multi-instrumentalist (though, curiously enough, using no saxophones), Sax has built a band around Elizabeth’s voice and piano. Her fans who knew this treatment was in the pipeline must have been wondering whether the vulnerable, introspective Essence of Bryson was going to be subsumed in a welter of overdubs: they need not have worried. Bear in mind that the brief mp3 soundclips on this page are highly-compressed: the album itself sounds much better.

‘The healing’s gone astray’ seems to be the heart of Until the Whirlpool Stops, the album's upbeat opener. There are shades of Conquistador in the opening stanza: ‘Warrior you do not wear it well / your call is cowardly / and the colours of all flags / do run into the cemetery’ – not only in the imagery but also in the somewhat archaic turn of phrase. But the accompaniment lends a great energy to what otherwise might be a depressing start to the collection: walking bass, strong percussion, and some Elvis-style slap-back echo on the treated voice [mp3].

Lightning [mp3], another fast number, features an unusually ‘horizontal’ melody in the verses, with a nice contrast in the chorus hook. ‘Lightning strikes once if you're lucky … I felt it twice’ would appear to be the key idea here; the confessional tone of the words interestingly at odds with the robustness of the band-track. I am somehow reminded of Natalie Merchant's writing, in the way that conversational, non-rhyming words are fitted – sometimes across the meter of the melodies – in Elizabeth's songs: ‘This world’s not the next world / by any stretch of the mind / but even so we can still feel a small part of it here’.

In Its Own Time is a wistful piece that starts off innocuously enough with lines about planted seeds and newborn babies … but just as we seem to be heading for some kind of sentimental yuk-fest, the tone swiftly shifts – as the studio band is added to the solo piano – on the pivot of the word ‘but’: ‘but the battles will find us … the storm will find its way’. Suddenly ‘a passion flies’ into the picture, and the key changes as Elizabeth dares herself to take her place 'on the ocean’ [mp3], to ‘slip and slide with the changes’ as ‘they come, they go, they grow …’ – and the song ends with a wistful masterstroke, as ‘a new song does rise’: her turbulent feelings are relieved in the creation of art.

Brick Road (using words by Michael Landrio) is spaciously arranged, and there are some attractive vocal harmonies and a strong chorus melody. But whereas the chorus words – ‘Aunty M [sic] … I had a very bad dream … there were people killing people because of … who they loved and where they sleep’ – bear an obvious relation to the album's principal lyrical concerns, yet some listeners may find the Wizard of Oz imagery in the verses a little heavy-handed compared to some of the rest of the album’s writing. But in the final chorus the treated vocal and dramatic instrumentation [mp3] certainly do a good job.

The plaintive All in a Moment Fleeting [mp3] is an episodic piece in which solo piano alternates with finely-textured guitar/organ chording to create a melancholic and enigmatic picture of someone whose ‘simple day’ has been troubled by ‘a passing cloud’, causing heartache (though we do not learn to whom). Then the music picks up dramatically with some Hispanic handclapping and a hint of flamenco in the guitar, as the singer proclaims that ‘wonderfully the light can shine’. So much narrative is packed into this little song, and so much storytelling is handled by the ‘literary’ arrangement, we might imagine that it was intended to be part of a stage musical.

The Sweetest Sound recounts a dream of playing in a chamber orchestra [mp3]: ‘I wondered what it could mean … maybe nothing at all’ sings Elizabeth, somewhat ingenuously perhaps, given that this brief foray ‘on unfamiliar instruments’ was sufficiently potent to set up a tension – skilfully evoked by harmonic changes – with ‘another love that’s in my soul’. As with the previous number, this short, delicate tune evokes worlds of regretful delight and sensuous pain.

In the lovely opening of Farther or Closer Elizabeth appears to be in contemplative Carole King mode, but her Procol Harum credentials quickly show themselves as the rhythm pauses – think Quite Rightly So – and a menacing instrumental build-up – think Symphathy for the Hard of Hearing takes over. But this, too, is short-lived: everything falls away to give space to the verbal heart of the song [mp3]: all that you believe ‘can easily be called into question / when you step inside a small picture’. This song is as tuneful as it is enigmatic, and to these ears it represents the arranger/producer’s finest hour.

The Yellow Flower reveals still more about the illicit object of the singer’s affections – I don’t say ‘of Elizabeth Bryson’s affections’, because the album is in a sense so literary that this whole thread, of the untouchable lover, could very well be fictive. He is glimpsed with all the clarity of a lucid dream, with his yellow flower and red jacket: the producer wisely allows this telling song to be carried purely by voce and piano. Then there is ‘another dream: I saw his wedding ring / he let me take it off his finger’ [mp3] and we know we are getting close to the heart of the mystery.

Question for Two Hearts is the number where we hear the ‘percussive wineglass’ that is listed among Elizabeth's credits on the liner insert. Unusually, we don't hear any piano: busy drums, pulsing bass, and a warm keyboard sound propel this song along [mp3]. It's very different from early piano demos, and to these ears something of the original atmosphere of the song is definitely lost; on the other hand, building up an intricate backing does allow for a dramatic effect when it suddenly ceases, leaving the voice (and its echo) to declare that ‘there is a part of me that loves the rain’. This is not a meteorological observation, but one occasioned by the sad fact that the object of the singer’s affection offers her ‘no reply’, troubling her with the need to interpret this silence.

The next number offers a delicate tune, charmingly arranged, and a heartfelt delivery. Mr Radcliff and Mrs Eversley [mp3] sounds like the title of a 19th-century poem, but I do not know of any such antecedent; the matter of the song arguably owes more to The Owl and the Pussycat, in that an oddly-sorted couple escape ‘in their boat across the sea’. In this improbable world, ‘it was a lovely day / and it will stay that way / into eternity’ … a far cry from the divided angst revealed by the attempts at optimism in many of the other songs. Is Elizabeth ‘Mrs Eversley’? Who is the mysterious ‘Mr Radcliff’? We are left in the dark, sadly. ‘In the blink of an eye volumes could be filled,’ the song promises us: but despite the Procol Harum quotation, we are left none the wiser.

The album ends with Stories: perhaps this song summarises the emotional dilemma voiced in the foregoing collection, perhaps it tells us that that dilemma was in fact a fiction, a story? Its sudden changes of key, and shifts in instrumentation, dramatise the dichotomy expressed in the lyric which shifts from ‘please leave a light on for me’ at the start to ‘I'll leave the light on for you’ in the conclusion. Lessons are learned, pages turned: a favourite story becomes a faded story [mp3], yet ‘our heart still beats for the gift so sweet / and what lingers incomplete’. Thus a stoical kindness and common-sense expresses its subjugation of a raw, awkward passion, informed by dreams – both waking and sleeping – which cannot find its true place amid the emotional complexities of the real world. Some listeners may conclude that, for a dreamer like Dorothy in Oz, 'there's no place like home'.

All eleven songs – about 38 minutes of music – are sung with warmth, real engagement, and crucially an absolute lack of pretension or histrionics. Almost all of them start with Elizabeth’s piano (as Grand Hotel does with Gary Brooker’s): it’s a writer’s album, whose honesty and tenderness are reminiscent of the McGarrigle sisters, though the songs and arrangements owe little to the world of Canadian folk. The production is smooth and contemporary, offering a lot to engage the ear, and seldom overwhelming the delicacy of the artist whom it serves.

I’d therefore like to recommend Reflections in My Tea to anybody who enjoys being moved by thoughtful, confessional songwriting. It is a very rewarding listen, and it doesn't reveal all its delights at once; ear-worms emerge and you'll find yourself haunted by evocative phrases, verbal and musical. It took me a long while to put a name to it, but I realise now how strongly her work evokes memories of hearing Sandy Denny live, in her North Star Grassman and the Ravens heyday. One warning, though: you may well require some optical assistance to read the lyrics and credits on the insert! Arguably space could be saved by not writing out the repeated choruses, enabling the use of a larger typeface overall. Nonetheless it’s interesting to find that the printed words are not quite as sung, in certain cases: was it a crowded ‘club’ or a ‘room’ where the dream lover laid down ‘the yellow flower’? Such a gesture could have a very different significance in a private space, as opposed to a public one. There are one or two small typos as well, so let us hope that a second edition will give Elizabeth the opportunity to show off her words in the style that this music deserves.

I noticed my own name among the thanks for ‘kindness, support and creative input’; it was a pleasure to offer a few comments on Elizabeth’s demos along the way – some of which (try this one) would surely have fitted well into the concept of this collection. Having been accustomed to the plainness of those piano/vocal recordings, I initially found the rough mixes of these ‘orchestrated’ versions rather lush, occasionally intrusively so. Yet having listened carefully to the finished album, I am converted to, and captivated by, Scot Sax’s approach to her work. Scot (pictured, right) lends a sophisticated ambience to the songs, without letting us lose sight of the personality at the centre of them. So I’m wondering already … what the second Elizabeth Bryson album will be like?

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Reflections in my Tea

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