A challenging yet comforting first LP from the Glasgow-based musician
The point you know you're listening to something special in Martha Ffion's debut album comes midway through the third track, 'Take Your Name', as her voice climbs and descends through the first few syllables of the yearning, addictive chorus line 'I know that you want me / do you really need me for life'. The song is a request to a partner to make the commitment of marriage, romantic but clear-eyed, shot through with jangling sleighbells and an empty-dancefloor echo which wraps warmly around everything, Ffion's voice included.
She paraphrases the Byrds on the same song as she sings 'you have been burned but / we've all been burned one / time or another', yet her sense of analogue retroism as a songwriter is more in line with the Shangri-Las, or with Camera Obscura's sense of winsome but determined vintage shop cool. Like CO, Ffion is also based in Glasgow and a newly-minted BBC 6 Music favourite, although she's from a small town in Ireland originally. Those who have been following her career will recognise her from a debut single on Johnny 'Pictish Trail' Lynch's Eigg-based Lost Map label.
Recorded at Chem19 studios, this album has arrived on Turnstile, home of Cate Le Bon, Gruff Rhys and Emmy the Great, yet it presents a less playfully experimental front than any of these peers. Instead, her songwriting and her storytelling is the key, founded on trad-inflected, loveable guitar-and-drums arrangements, and in their finest moments her songs are in perfect command of atmosphere and tone.
'Missing You' is beautiful, a reverberating electric strum, with Ffion 'wait(ing) up all night / a glass of milk / a half-smoked pack of Lucky Strikes', stewing as she awaits a lover's return. 'Real Love' – another gorgeous tune – perfectly subverts those female-fronted songs of winsome romance so loved by indie boys, subtly asking instead if their subject wants to get the girl for his own sense of self-importance ('would she clean your gun / even if you'd done something no-good to someone' is a particularly loaded line). And 'Punch-Drunk' breaks ties with a lover who has a problem with drink and violence.
Her songs are pretty, but her lyrics are the real treat, pointed and sharp, but deliberately vague in their target. When she sings 'life never failed to fail me / but you took it out on me' on 'Record Sleeves', she could be aiming the barb at a partner or an old friend from her teenage years. The line 'there's no shame in facing every day / with an overwhelming sense of making do' transfers itself to many situations, although between the lines it carries a sense of a woman's emotional labour.
The music is all drawn from the same well, spanning the narrow gap between Pixies' lighter indie-pop ('Lead Balloon') and nostalgic country ('Baltimore'), with some pristine choruses standing out. Yet there's a striking personal depth here that might be missed on first listen, unless you consciously make a point of mulling over the lyrics. On every level, it's a winning debut that comforts and challenges in equal amounts.
Sunday Best is out on Turnstile Music, on Fri 9 Mar. Martha Ffion tours the UK from Wed 7 Mar.