released 8 August 2011 on Fair Maiden Records
There’s a fine line between obscurity and fame. The history of music is littered with artists who toiled to no avail for years before hitting on that winning formula or lucky break that propelled them into the spotlight. Consider Seasick Steve, the bluesman who hopped railroad cars and struggled in poverty for much of his life before becoming everybody’s favourite homemade guitar-playing grandfather (his guitar was homemade, not him… oh, never mind).
This line of thinking seems especially relevant when considering the fate of Hélène Bradley – aka Citizen Helene – because it’s difficult not to root for her and feel she’s only one favourable Radio 2 playlist meeting away from the mainstream. With her shimmering melodies and honey-coated vocals, the most obvious comparison here is Rumer, herself an artist who spent a decade under the radar before enjoying commercial success.
The four tracks that make up the Citizen Helene EP showcase a rare and somewhat anachronistic talent. Despite originally hailing from Bridport in Dorset, her unfussy folk-tinged ballads would be more suited to1970s Los Angeles. This isn’t to say Citizen Helene is stuck in the past; her pure voice and clear diction may bring to mind Karen Carpenter or Mama Cass, but there are shades of contemporary pop and plenty of invention packed into the EP’s ten minutes.
Opener, PS I Don’t Love You – apparently inspired by spotting broadcaster Mark Lamarr at a Zombies gig – is short but sweet; an irresistible mix of cool bossa nova rhythms and gorgeous, double-tracked vocals that ends on an eyebrow-raising chord. Sunday Morning Light and ‘Til Tomorrow are simple yet effective with sumptuous chord changes, simple finger picking and vocals that sound like the sun breaking through the clouds. Despite the fact you’ll have heard lots of music like this before, there’s something addictive about Citizen Helene, which comes from the soul-baring clarity of her voice and the sheer quality of the songwriting.
The EP’s final track, Stephen Fry, is a tongue-in-cheek ode to the tweet-happy polymath (“She talks about you all the time / Though she knows you play for the other side”) which is slightly at odds with the previous trio of tracks. However, what could easily be trite or ham-fisted is rescued by a marvellous string arrangement, courtesy of The Memory Band’s Sarah Scutt.
As statements of intent go, Citizen Helene really is a fantastic taster of things to come. It’s likely to be a slow-burner than something that immediately grabs you, its weaving melodies seep into your skin over multiple listens and before you know it, you’re singing your own paean to Stephen Fry in the shower (that’s not Stephen Fry in the shower, its… oh, never mind).
If there were to be one criticism, it’s that these four tracks are very much underpinned by some – admittedly rather fine – acoustic guitar work, and while that’s more than sufficient for an EP, Citizen Helene may need to spread her wings a little farther over the course of an entire album. However, at a time when the temptation is to throw everything including the kitchen sink when producing a record, it’s extremely refreshing to hear songs which are largely unadorned and haven’t an ounce of spare fat on them. A wonderful voice and a real talent has been discovered – highly recommended.