Sophie Peyten grew up on a farm in rural Australia where there wasn’t much else to do apart from learn to play an instrument and write songs. After that she honed her talents at a residential school for girls. And she’s gotten rather good at it.
The 24-year old Gordi, as she styles herself (one of a younger brother’s nicknames for her and the one that stuck) released her entirely self-penned debut EP, Clever Disguise, in May 2016 and immediately secured a strong and growing following in Australia, also selectively abroad where she has toured (she supported Highasakite on several dates in the UK last year). With this long-awaited debut album she has the potential to become far better known on the world stage, which she deserves.
The album title, ‘Reservoir’, is her way of describing the nebulous space into which she delves whenever she wants to write a song but which is not one in which she could dwell forever. There is nothing nebulous about her voice though, which is a rich contralto, quite unusual and refreshing in an industry segment dominated by sopranos.
The album appears to consist of her originally acoustically penned songs, many of which have been enhanced by a plethora of instrumentation and effects, some of it decidedly Australian in nature. On some songs it doesn’t really quite work and you wish for a simple guitar or piano version instead while on others the outcome is spectacular.
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Relationships, particularly failed ones, feature strongly in her repertoire as song titles like ‘Bitter End’ (“don’t deny me my bitter ending”); ‘I’m Done’; ‘Doubts’ and ‘Can We Work It Out’ hint. The question mark may or may not have been deliberately left out of the title of the last of those. There seems to be an aura of inevitability about the longevity of her liaisons.
The first track, ‘Long Way’, opens with what sounds like a didgeridoo starting up and tells you straight away that this album is going to be different. The richness of her voice also hits you immediately. There are some nice self-accompanying harmonies and the vocal recording has a slight echo effect that is common to her work. The percussion sounds like a ticking clock and emphasises a long way (to go), as does the constant repetition of the title.
‘All the Light we can see’ showcases what has become Gordi’s trademark percussion, performed on the off-beat with big booming drums. Then it changes suddenly to a marching beat half way through, building to a climax before the opening verse pattern returns.
Drums are again to the fore on ‘On My Side’ which features some strange noises off. It is not quite as satisfactory as the previous two tracks but the chorus at least is memorable.
Track 4, ‘Bitter End’, is a more traditional melancholy guitar ballad, padded out with mournful keys and strings but the effects are still there in the background, probably superfluously in this case.
Track 5, ‘Heaven I know’, is an intriguing one and somewhat peculiar as she counts to three repeatedly and rapidly in a whispered voice, Laurie Anderson-like. Effects this time include unnecessary voice distortion, even more unnecessary baby noises and some welcome, tasty brass. It is more of an experimental track before it settles into the thrilling power ballad it really should have been from the start with its repeated refrain of “Heaven I know, we tried”. The song has an interesting angle on friendship being more important than relationships. Okay, we’ve been there already and the Spice Girls laid down a template for it almost 20 years ago but this is a pretty good stab at it nonetheless; well at least in the second half of the song. Surely an anthem in the making for live shows.
In Track 6, ‘I’m Done’, Sophie returns to her girl-with-an-acoustic guitar persona that typified the early part of her career. Again there’s a nice trumpet part but the benefits it provides are adversely countered by weird vocal effects that serve no real purpose.
‘Myriad’ (Track 7) is a slow burner and this time the musical accompaniment is more appropriate to the song, with its layered approach. It doesn’t quite reach the climax you are entitled to anticipate as Gordi wrestles with a myriad of emotions that revolve around the concept of loss.
The album started with a song about the passing of time and that’s a recurrent theme throughout. Track 8’s title, ‘Aeon’, means timeless and the early part is underpinned by that most ageless of instruments, the harmonium. Then after just over a minute it sounds as if it has got stuck in a loop before it explodes into 30 seconds of explorative electronica and then settles down into a lovely final passage and conclusion that has the hallmark of M83 about it. Another very good song that is sidetracked by a penchant to go off at a tangent.
The ninth track, ‘Can we work it out’, which also featured on the EP, is the best song Sophie has written to date; quite exquisite, a brilliant, moving ballad with just the perfect application of electronic enhancement (she also does a great solo piano version). The writer has seen it performed live and it’s every bit as good. The song of the album and a good bet for a successful single here from it.
After opening with a Peter Gabriel-esque vocal, ‘Doubts’ turns out to be the most rock-like track, and in which the love/friendship conundrum crops up again, “You’re my lover, I’m your friend”. It segues into ‘Something like this’, a plaintive ballad. The vocal hook, “I wanted something like this” is quite prescient, almost as if she is musing on the completed works here.
At times Gordi (more likely her producers) seem if anything to be trying too hard to impress, drifting off from the main message of the song to insert a variety of musical passages and wiz-bang effects, some of which add to the piece (especially the subtle electronic flourishes on her ballads), while others decidedly don’t. But her underlying talent is unquestionable. It will be fascinating to see how she offers these songs to a live audience – as acoustic pieces or with a full band.
If she can write an album full of ‘Can We Work It Out’, or ‘So Here We Are’, an excellent, poignant song which was on Clever Disguise but surprisingly omitted here – both of which have quite powerful hooks – and dispense with some of the unjustified baggage that made its way on to several of the Reservoir tracks, she’ll be a world beater. She’s working now with Bon Iver, possibly a spin-off from Justin Vernon’s association with Highasakite, which will surely be of benefit in the long run.
A move to Europe or the US to get the wider appreciation she is capable of achieving might be called for but if that came to pass their loss Down Under would be our gain in the Western Hemisphere, for sure.
Best tracks: Can we work it out; Heaven I know; Doubts
Reservoir was released on 25 August 2017 on Jagjaguar Records
Forthcoming European dates:
02 November: Iceland Airwaves, Reykjavik
06 November: London – Omeara
07 November: Leeds – Headrow House
08 November: Manchester – Night & Day