Sunday, March 27, 2011

A few words about Luluc's Dear Hamlyn

By Peter Blackstock

Tuesday, March 15, 2011: Somewhere above the Southern United States, en route to Austin, Texas. Over the next five days, I'll hear dozens of bands from all over the world perform at theaters, nightclubs, restaurants, galleries, beer gardens, parking lots, rooftops, pretty much anywhere a stage can be set up. Some will be artists I know and love; some will be musicians I've never heard before. Some will intrigue me, some will surprise me, some will repel me, some will make me want to hear more.

There's only one thing I know for sure: Nothing I hear can possibly measure up to Dear Hamlyn, the debut album by an Australian duo who call themselves Luluc.

This is not a new record, but it's new to me. Dear Hamlyn came out in 2008, but few beyond Luluc's native country have heard it yet (though a couple of its songs were featured on recent episodes of "Grey's Anatomy," and some Canadian audiences got to hear them on the folk festival circuit last summer). For the past year, Luluc’s Zoe Randell and Steve Hassett have been living in New York; a few days after I first heard their album, I found myself on a plane to NYC to catch one of their gigs. The crowd to hear them play that night at the Lower East Side bar Piano's was in the single digits.

And that’s a good place to start, really: Lest any of the above testimony imply that Randell and Hassett’s music is really "big," in fact it's precisely the opposite — this may be the smallest music I've ever heard. By "small" I mean minimal, intimate, and quiet: Luluc's music is vulnerable to being overwhelmed by larger ensembles and louder sounds. Which is to say, no, this is not the Next Big Thing. This is little, with a lower-case l. And I cannot, for the life of me, get it out of my mind, or my heart.

I think this is because Dear Hamlyn was born of specifically private and personal circumstances. Hamlyn was the name of singer Zoe Randell's father, and these recordings were partly her way of dealing with his death. He's there in every breath of "Little Suitcase," traveling wherever his daughter may go: "The indent of your strong hand, I feel each time I grip this bag, that I now carry." These things we inherit from our departed loved ones are constant reminders; true, they're merely material possessions, but sometimes just stumbling across one can bring back waves of emotion, a wistful smile or a flood of tears. "One of a set of four, that went from big to small; they belong together." In the end, Randell wonders: "If I were to travel to some new place, will I find a new home, or just more empty space?" That emptiness bleeds in the beautiful resonation of Randell's voice, which disarms with a gracefulness that is the very antithesis of pretense.

But there IS a new home on Dear Hamlyn, and it's the reason that this album was released under the name of Luluc, rather than as a Zoe Randell solo recording. Many years ago, Randell happened upon fellow Australian Steve Hassett — halfway around the world in Scotland, of all places — and it's a good thing, because musical pairings this empathetic are incredibly rare. Their vocals mesh in a manner that, I would contend, reaches deeper than sibling harmony: lover harmony, perhaps. (There's a huge emotional difference, after all, between, say, the Louvin Brothers and Richard & Linda Thompson.) To echo Randell's words about those suitcases: They belong together.

Those voices are grounded in the character and quality of the musical backdrop. Hassett fully understands how less can be more, how little can be much greater than big. One suspects he could rival most any guitar-shredder he might share a nightclub with, but you won't hear that here: You'll hear only the right notes, the ones that belong, the ones which bring out Randell's voice and songs. Not a single stroke or strum is obtrusive in 40 minutes of music. Such mindful restraint is deceptively difficult to realize, but it's a big reason Dear Hamlyn is magic.

There are minor accents along the way: touches of cello, twinges of pedal steel, a few horns here and there, all placed with care and purpose into the soul of the surroundings. The mood, very pointedly, is never broken — which is not to say there is no variance in the style or tempo, because there is. If nothing here quite rocks, much of it sways, or swells, or sweetly swings; within the spectrum of the enchanting spell they cast, there are many colors here. But nothing will jar you out of the reverie that begins with the bowing of a double bass on "I Found You" and rides all the way to the extended strums at the end of "My Midnight Special." Precious few records I've ever heard have achieved such a wholeness of spirit in sound.

Sunday, March 20, 2011: Somewhere above the Southern United States again, heading home. Behind me, five days and nights filled with musical adventures, old and new friends, barbecue and Mexican food, warm Texas winds, endless throngs of revelers along the city streets, the constancy of conversation, even a Supermoon rising majestically over the Austin horizon.

In those occasional moments of pause amid the mayhem, dashing from show to show or driving back home at the end of a long night, out of the car speakers floated the songs of Dear Hamlyn. "How my heart is beaming, like the sun...and the moon, and the stars beyond." Passing through my childhood neighborhood at 2 in the morning, serenaded by the epiphany of "I Found You," it felt as if I had been waiting for this music all of my life.


  1. how beautifully you have described one of my very favourite albums! I was lucky enough to catch Luluc as the support to Angus and Julia Stone and have been enchanted ever since. I love how Steve's guitar and voice harmonises so perfectly with Zoe's, giving it so much depth. At times i had to watch him so see that he was singing! It is rare to see such an egoless performance.

  2. I first heard little suitcase on JJJ in australia and had to get the album, then I bought fleet foxes tickets and was overjoyed that Luluc were supporting them and then to see them at the Troubadour which unfortunatley is no longer - they are magic and I can't wait to hear their next album and to come home to Australia to play again

  3. Beautifully written, Peter. I love your passion, and the music community needs your passion. Thanks for dragging me out in NYC on a cold, dark night to see Luluc...what a special treat!

    Thanks go to Zoe and Steve, for making the night considerably warmer and brighter.

  4. Perfectly put. A beautiful collection of music that I love listening to over and over. It reminds me somehow of Simon and Garfunkel, but relevant for this century. I hope many, many people "discover" Luluc. I first saw them at the Vancouver Folk Festival last year, and I was entranced.