If ever an instrument comes loaded with preconceptions, it is the harp, yet Serafina Steer proves this stately instrument can play some unexpected roles, at various points tonight accompanied by a pounding house beat, treated guitar and - musical pun intended? – a Jew’s harp.
While Steer remains rooted to the spot for most of this one-off set, her musical kaleidoscope serves an even more vital function: augmenting flights of fancy that range from feminist sea shanty, though alien abduction to an uncomfortable jaunt down a nearby road. “I don’t hate Brick Lane,” she claims, introducing ‘Ballad Of Brick Lane’ which suggests just that. “This is meant to be all love and light, this gig.”
Yet running through the disparate subject matter and sonic landscapes of third album The Moths Are Real are dark hints at relationships gone wrong, something you get much less with established American harpist Joanna Newsom. Furthermore, the local player approaches the instrument more from a minimalist perspective than Newsom’s baroque folk. That was especially apparent on Steer’s first two albums, the second of which, Change Is Good, Change Is Good, was praised by Jarvis Cocker as “my favourite record of 2010”, leading him to produce this year’s follow-up.
Its more ambitious chamber pop nature, while still intimate, is evinced by this showcase in a church where some recording took place. Steer fits in comfortably, her arpeggios and cut-glass accent’s perfect diction cutting through its woolly acoustics. On more fabular songs she is reminiscent of Vashti Bunyan, though with additional cutting asides. Steer lacks vocal variation, concentrating on the possibilities of her chosen instrument, as she ranges from rolling near-glissandos to delicate lacework.
Notes cascading like a babbling brook sound especially bright counterpointed with a string quartet’s warmer tones and also complement collaborator Kristian Robinson’s Radiophonic synths and drum machine. Other guests pop up in odd corners, leaving Steer looking distracted. Dave Maric’s church organ lights up the acerbic ‘Removal Man’ with Cocker’s head bobbing behind a speaker as he provides lugubrious backing vocals.
That tune starts a fine triptych completed by the Dorothy Ashby-style psychedelic funk of ‘Island Odessy’ (sic) and the eccentric, loungey strut of ‘Night Before Mutiny’, aided by Pulp’s bassist Steve Mackay with Cocker on wind machine. At the end, Steer proves she can cope without an extended cast on the clanking ‘How To Haunt A House Party’, having shown the harp can mingle freely.