Lea Maalfrid’s This Love – a master class in singer-songwriting

7/10

Summary

Lea Maalfrid – This Love ALBUM REVIEW

One of NZ’s most distinguished songwriters finally gets round to recording a career-spanning overview, and GARY STEEL is well impressed.

Lea Maalfrid – despite a 50-something-year career – is one of Aotearoa’s lesser-known and perhaps least understood talents. I won’t go down the biographical rabbit hole because it’s all there on her Audioculture profile. Suffice to say that this convenient overview gives us the chance to understand the depth of her catalogue, even though it’s a mere 11 songs long.

I knew her as the voice-bending goddess from NZ space-rock band Ragnarok’s 1975 debut (read about that here and here), but her year with the boys in the band was merely a blip in a career that’s been full of adventure and miscellaneous geographic locations.

 

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Maalfrid had the pipes to make her name as a singer, but both before and after Ragnarok her real interest lay in formulating her own compositions, and by the time she left New Zealand for London in the late 1970s she had a suitcase full of songs to ply internationally.

It still seems odd to me that instead of becoming a renowned singer-songwriter – she certainly had the charisma and skill set – she ended up selling her songs to other stars like Sheena Easton and Bonnie Raitt. For many years we didn’t hear anything much from Maalfrid, except for the occasional tiny writing credit under someone else’s covers of one of her songs.

Maalfrid finally made a late-period comeback of sorts with her album Goddess Of Love in 2002, but while it’s a serviceable exposition of her abilities, the record’s meditative new age balladry made it more of a destination for those with special musical and emotional requirements rather than something of interest to typical music fans.

And then, This Love, recorded at Roundhead Studios in 2021 with producer Greg Haver and featuring a quality cast of locals including Haver (drums and percussion) and Jol Mullholland (guitars) as well as a full string section and female backing singers. In other words, it was done properly, and the results are impressive.

This is not rock music and for some, the emphasis on balladry will be a bit more MOR than they can cope with. It’s not my favourite music style either, but I enjoyed this album specifically because Maalfrid has an unusual ability to side-step cliché, and somehow knows how to enrich and add resonance to her otherwise mainstream creations with an inflexion, or a word.

There’s a sense that she has lived some of the heart-felt experiences described in these songs, a marvellous resonance to her vocal delivery, and an almost devotional bent to the arrangements that reminds me in some way of Van Morrison in his quieter moments. And that comparison isn’t so far off in some ways, because a fair chunk of the songs here are performed as blue-eyed soul ballads with warm, throbbing organ and cooing backup singers. There are moments where if you took away the human romance and swapped out Jesus you’d almost have a gospel record.

The closer you look at some of these songs, the more there is to hear, like the almost classical flourishes on her piano playing on a few cuts and the slight jazz inflexions on a few others. Then there’s her deeply satisfying vocals, which have gained a kind of emotional authority with age. And while the thematic content varies, the way she approaches a love lyric is just that satisfying bit left of centre.

“I hear you keep your heart in two houses/I hear she cares for you just like I do”, she sings on ‘Bittersweet Love’, and you know in just a few words exactly what’s going on in her life in that song. On ‘Storm Warning’, she’s mourning the loss of her lover, who has fallen for another. “You can’t stop a river when it’s burst its banks/I wonder how long it’s going to take to get over this heartbreak.” And somehow, it feels real, a universal experience shared.

It’s not all forlorn, and on ‘Just A Look’, she sings: “You’ll never know how you redeem me/Your eyes have shown how you’ve really seen me.” Really seen me. Isn’t that what every lover wants? And on the title track, it’s the eyes again: “Your eyes are the eyes that I want to look into.” And what might sound a little midday TV soap on paper comes across with conviction on record.

There’s no getting away from ‘Lavender Mountain’, though. (Note: the YouTube clip above is the original version, as thee are no clips as yet from the new album). This song won her the first-ever APRA Silver Scroll award in 1977 and there’s no doubting why. An impassioned and deep ode to someone that’s both intimate and dreamy, for the chorus she simply swoops up in a wordless rococo melody that’s instantly memorable, and somehow makes even the hardest heart go all a-flutter.

Beautifully recorded and paid the kind of attention her song catalogue deserves, This Love is an album that anyone with a hankering for some old-fashioned pop balladry will find repeatedly gratifying.

 

 

 

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