(12 March 2006) Whereas the band's eponymous 2003 album exclusively featured the vocals of founder member Evelyn Downing, Salt On Skin (MERM02CD, 2006), the new seven track mini-album from Mermaid Kiss, reflects their changing line-up over the last couple of years and is something of a transitional work. It features two songs sung by original vocalist Evelyn Downing, two by Kate Belcher who was with the band for a relatively short period in 2004-05 and three songs with new vocalist Kate Emerson.
On first hearing the new album what is immediately striking is how different all three vocalists sound to each other and yet how each song retains the Mermaid Kiss sound. Having three different singers could have led to a disjointed feel to the album, but in fact this variety is actually one of the album’s strengths. Indeed, one of the pleasures of Salt On Skin lies in hearing the different qualities that each singer brings to the music.
While Evelyn Downing's contributions to the album are perhaps the most atmospheric, there is a smooth confidence and effortless quality to Kate Emerson's voice that really suits the songs on which she performs. However, the real vocalist find on this album is Kate Belcher; there is a fragile quality and an emotional texture to her singing that makes it really special. She has a very youthful voice that still has those edges that tend to get smoothed out over time with a lot of singers.
The song writing and production of Jamie Field and Andrew Garman on Salt on Skin represents a real leap forward for Mermaid Kiss and a pristine mix and sensitive arrangements by Andrew allow all the elements of the songs to shine through (the only criticism being that some of the fades on the songs seem a bit abrupt to these ears). It's also good to hear the band experimenting with a wider palette of instruments and sounds than on previous releases. While the quality of the song-writing with its intelligent lyrics and superficially uncomplicated structures is immediately rewarding, the arrangements and soundscapes that the band create also repay repeated listening as subtle layers of sound reveal themselves. Salt On Skin has a much more commercial and accessible sound than their previous work but still retains an important element of originality and deserves to gain a wider audience for their music.
"Blushing Bride" is a great opener that introduces newest vocalist, Kate Emerson. Atmospheric drones and spiky guitar work open the song and introduce us to the Blushing Bride, an ambiguous female figure of desire and fear who haunts the singer’s dreams and nightmares. This song represents a much harder sonic edge than we have previously heard from Mermaid Kiss and is all the better for it. A memorable sing along chorus and a couple of suitably flashy and melodic solos from Panic Room and ex-Karnataka guitarist, Paul Davies, completes the package.
"Walk Away" is another new song with a different singer and a change of pace. This is a jazz inflected song with a lovely breathy vocal performance from Kate Belcher and a bouncing bass line that lifts the choruses. A nice jazzy piano and guitar interlude flesh out the song. "Hollow" sees original vocalist Evelyn back in the driving seat as singer and songwriter. More like the Mermaid Kiss that we've heard before but with a more expansive sound. Imagine a collaboration between Kate Bush, David Sylvian and Eric Satie this is very atmospheric music with a filmic quality to it and a sinister turn to the lyrics that speak of obsession and love turned to something much darker.
"Human Zoo" is the standout track on the album. It is a very creepy song with a great Peter Gabriel-like groove to it. This sounds like the soundtrack to one of those weird dreams--you know the kind of thing--a young girl walking through the woods glimpsing figures in the trees with strange animal heads and before you know it you wake up screaming. This one features nice choppy chords and a blistering guitar solo from Nigel Hooton. Human Zoo has a really tight arrangement and a lumbering groove that just sucks you in and drags you along with it.
Starting with some lovely flute work from Evelyn before the rhythm starts and an understated piano motif introduces Kate Emerson's voice in "Hard Row." The song has a marvellous spacious feel and evokes the dry open landscapes and cloudless skies that the lyrics speak of. A song for everyone who thinks that attending a stadium rock concert is going to solve the world's problems.
"Volcano" is another atmospheric track that evokes Ninth Wave-era Kate Bush with it's opening backwards vocal and spooky keyboard and guitar parts, but also manages to transcend its influences to make a very striking and individual sound. As with many of Evelyn and Jamie's songs the smell of sulphur is never far away with this tale of relationships gone awry and something sinister moving through the heart and mind.
"I Go To Sleep" is the simplest of the songs on offer here--this is that rare thing--a Mermaid Kiss song that doesn't deal with the darker and sinister aspects of life and the imagination. Compared to the songs that precede it this almost feels like a sketch rather than a finished song, but as a simple piano and vocal piece to finish the album it's a suitably gentle ending with its lyric of retreat from the cares of the day into peaceful sleep reflecting the simplicity and serenity of the music.
Salt On Skin is available from the band's website and for under £5.00 for nearly 30 minutes of music is a well worth investigating. Those in North America can obtain the record at CDBaby. If Mermaid Kiss can produce a collection of such consistent yet varied songs on their next full-length album then they should gain many new fans.--Jonathan Edwards in Swansea, Wales and Russ Elliot in New York