Ideally, chamber folk should find a balance between both sides of the equation. If the songwriting isn’t strong enough, a weak tune can be overpowered by cloying strings, like a thin cake buried beneath a mountain of frosting. But a creative arrangement can make a good song great, providing more than just background music for the guy or girl with a guitar; consider the dark-blue swell of the strings on Nick Drake’s “River Man”, or the complex, eclectic arrangements on Joanna Newsom’s Ys (courtesy of Van Dyke Parks).
Chloe Foy, the Gloucestershire-born songwriter behind the recent Callous Copper EP, is uniquely capable of striking that balance. A classically-trained pianist and cellist, Foy has played in symphony hall orchestras even before she started writing her own music. This background, combined with her strong love of folk music, has resulted in some lovely, delicate folk songs, backed with lush string arrangements. Perhaps her greatest asset, however, comes not from the orchestra but from her lungs; her voice is rich, warm, and welcoming, the kind of voice you imagine echoing from the top of an emerald green hill in spring.
Callous Copper starts off with the title track, which is quite the opposite of its title. Far from callous, it’s a bittersweet, empathetic song; instead of dull copper, it practically glows with golden-hour sunlight. Foy sings of love and journeys and heartbreak (literal heartbreak, in fact, with a shot in the dark hitting her right in her chest), but even with all of that pain behind her, she has no regrets. “I wouldn’t have it any other waaaaaaaaaay,” she sings, that last word lifting up before gently floating down to earth, strings fluttering alongside it. It’s the second-best song of her career so far (the best comes later); I hope to hear many more like it.
If “Callous Copper” sounds like the beginning of autumn, the warmth of the summer not yet gone, “Never Be The Same Again” is when the first cold snap sets in. Minor-key strings pluck and saw behind Foy as she sings how she won’t believe it when she’s told that things will never be the same. The bell-like beauty of her voice in the chorus makes us want to think she’s right, but the strings tell us the sad truth. Following that is “Birds”, a cover of Neil Young’s song of the same name from his landmark After the Gold Rush. It’s as pretty as everything else here, but it’s hard to mistake Young’s songwriting for anyone else’s, so it sticks out a bit nonetheless.
But that’s a minor nitpick when it’s followed by “Song for D”. The best song she’s done yet, it’s an achingly gorgeous tribute to someone who has left. It’s unclear if the brief mention of their death is metaphorical or not, but it doesn’t matter: the strings are so choked with feeling, the melodies so tender and gentle, Foy’s voice so shimmering and soulful, that the sweet sorrow of their parting is bone-deep. The guitar is absent on this song, all the better to let the strings and harmonies trail pink ribbons through the ether; it reminds me very much of Bjork’s “You’ve Been Flirting Again”, which I mean as the highest compliment. If it overshadows “Borrow from Tomorrow”, the last song on the EP, that’s alright; it’s hard to imagine what could follow it up.
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