I first saw Liz Martin play back in the folk infused days of the mid 90s, when every pub seemed to have an acoustic jam session and Sydney was awash with the sound of Jeff Buckley. It was clear, even then, that Liz had a certain quality which lifted her above the stylists and try hards. A pure beauty in performance that eschewed the demonstrative and instead, resonated at a higher level. She had the wise soul of a poet. A dyed in the wool Cohenesque stoicism.
I have watched her career since then, as she steadily climbed the serried steps of Sydney’s gigging hierarchy, till, with the release of her first albums (Beneath the Stars, Night Music) and collaboration with Paul Mac, she finally began to receive the attention she has always merited. During this time she flirted with a variety of idioms, creating compelling music from a melange of electronica, folk and jazz. It was charismatic, likeable stuff, that cemented her place in the Sydney indie scene. Yet, there was a sense that she was still in the process of finding her voice.
This album (Dance a Little, Live a Little) changes all that. In a sweet spot between, jazz, pop and folk she has found a groove that perfectly conveys the subtle, wistful, longing of a poet’s muse with a suite of songs that range from heart achingly tender ballads to playful instrumentals. It is a remarkable collection of work, stylistically cohesive, yet varied and rich, stamped with the authority of some of Sydney’s finest musicians. But at the centre of everything is a voice that is beauty itself.
Liz does not sing with the “heart on her sleeve” bluster of your regular Saturday night chanteuse, but rather, lures you with the formal, restrained tone of a female Cohen doing Rickie Lee Jones. Here the lyric is given as it was written, thoughtful, in reflection, poignant.
It cuts no less for that. A song like Oh! stays with you, wrapped around your heart like a mist. Even the swinging So Long with its jaunty, springing rhythm has a shadow. These are songs that burn with a cool flame.
When Liz decided to make this record, she eschewed long nights in with the mouse and keyboard, instead opting to share the responsibility of production with one of Sydney’s most talented musicians and finest bass players, Dave Symes. They gathered a band studded with local luminaries that included Dave Symes (bass), Hamish Stuart (drums), Stu Hunter (keys), Veren Grigorov (violin/viola), Dirk Kruithof (guitar) and Mr Percival (guest vocals on an excellent cover of Bowie’s Sound and Vision).
"The collection of musicians on the album are people that either Dave Symes or I have played with over the years. They are awesome and just right. Everyone that played was true to the nature of each song and found their own way into each song."
One of the special pleasures of the record is the interplay between bass, drums and piano. It has a kind of early Bowie intensity to it, with a heady, intense groove that insists on repeated listens. Indeed all of the record has that special lustre that comes from real performances rather than the cutting and pasting of formula pop. Its almost nostalgic.
But it is always the voice that we come back to. Liz has a special talent as a singer. Her communication is nuanced, every color shadowed, textured, intense. Hers is a singular talent and this is an album that marks a watershed in her career. A mature, reflective, accomplished record that offers something new on every listen. Enjoy.
- Ian Shadwell