While any self-respecting would-be troubadour needs a chequered, nomadic past to be taken seriously, EMILY O’HALLORAN would appear to have something of a head-start in the kudos stakes.
Let’s examine her CV. She left home at the tender age of 14 to live on a hippie commune in Australia, followed by a ‘Walk on the Wild Side’-style hitch-hike across the Australasian continent. Later, she pitched up in NYC reciting her poetry and playing songs in Greenwich Village in time-honoured Bob’ n’ Joan tradition. Even her road to findding a record company involved a strange twist of fate with a rough demo finding its’ way into the hands of veteran record producer Mark Howard (Lucinda Williams, Tom Waits, Dylan again). As you might imagine from such an irregular story, the eventual album sessions then took place in unlikely locations like living rooms and tree houses as well as regular recording studios.
So in terms of a rep, O’Halloran appears to have the book written before she sings or plays a note, yet her debut ‘Morphine & Cupcakes’ suggests there’s a lot more to her than just a notably kooky and arcane past. Sure, it helps that Mark Howard can bring seasoned, sympathetic players like Daryl Johnson (Dylan, Lanois, Emmy-Lou Harris) and Peter Atanasoff (Rickie Lee Jones) to flesh out these often skeletal performances, but ultimately this album’s eerie allure is cast by O’Halloran’s otherworldly songs and ghostly vocal presence.
Admittedly, ‘Morphine & Cupcakes’ is anything but a sunny afternoon, jump around the living room kinda record. In the main, the songs are as sparse and opiated as the title suggests; sounding like they’re on first name terms with the desolation of the early hours and stemming from being on the receiving end of several bottles of red wine. The fact O’Halloran sings them like a throaty amalgam of Gina Villalobos and a young Marianne Faithfull doesn’t hurt, although the resolutely funereal pace of the majority of the songs may prove a stumbling block if you’re hoping to take the album in at one whole sitting. In this respect, I have to confess a desire to zone out both on the Dylan cover ‘Billy’ and the moribund ‘The Young & The Dead.’
Those with a smattering of patience will be rewarded for their perseverance, however, for when ‘Morphine & Cupcakes’ scores, it scores in spades. Spiritual and drowsy with wonderment, ‘Kindness’ is a great opener, hinting at ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ and bringing the Cowboy Junkies and Mazzy Star thrillingly to mind, while the deliciously spare ‘Crying When It Hurts’ makes like an Americana-soused Red House Painters.
While I’d baulk at calling it ‘fast’, ‘Free Man’ benefits from prominent vibrato guitar figures and certainly has a spring in its’ step, while its’ cool chorus (“smoke my cigarettes like they do in the movies”) suggests it’s the most obvious choice as a single here. The best is arguably reserved for last though, courtesy the Gospel-tinged soul-nocturne of ‘Hallelujah’ and the ultra-hallucinogenic title track which is about as dreamy and sultry as it’s possible to get. With your clothes on, anyway.
‘Morphine & Cupcakes’, then, may not yet bring on full-blown addiction to Emily O’Halloran, but its’ warm, narcotic pull suggests that further dabbling may well be on the cards long into the future.
7/10 Whisperin and Hollerin, Tim Peacock