Hollie Fullbrook has an arresting, husky alto that makes her singing stand out immediately. Add that to her multi-faceted songwriting talents and a New Zealand “accent” that’s going to sound pretty exotic to American ears, and Olympic Girls, her first album to be officially released in the U.S., just might make a big splash. It ought to.
Fullbrook fronts Tiny Ruins, one of those situations that started out as a solo project and over several years and three releases has grown into a full band. The label that’s releasing it, Ba Da Bing, has done a fine job of preparing the ground by releasing three very strong singles in advance. The three highlight some of the variety of tone and topic that Fullbrook brings to her songcraft.
“How Much” is a sophisticated poppish ballad with a quietly anthemic chorus that calls to mind early Angel Olsen. For me the arrangement stands out most, with its chugging bass line and crackling snares. “School Of Design” is a brooding, atmospheric ballad in which Fullbrook narrates a solo excurison through an empty school. She’s backed mostly by acoustic guitar arpeggiating dark minor chords, with subtle accompaniment from arco cello, acoustic bass, vibes and other light percussion.
Finally, the title track was released as a stunning video that combines Fullbrook in solo performance with gorgeous footage of her wandering through New Zealand parkland on Little Muddy Creek in Auckland. Director Charlotte Evans perfectly synchronizes the poignant lyrics with Fullbrooks movement through the landscape, without ever being too obvious about it. It’s a lovely song and one of the few videos that has stuck with me in years.
(Woops! make that four singles. “Hologram” was released just a week before the album release date; it’s a mysterious, gently flowing song of trying to bring back some essence of a loved one, and its video emphasizes the song’s psych-folk feel.)
Some of the other songs pack nearly as much impact, largely through Fullbrook’s sharp lyricism. In the first verse of “Sparklers” she deftly weaves the literal and metaphoric through her description of writing a lover’s name in the darkness with a fizzling firework on a wire. The production and engineering are superb throughout the album; one place it catches my ear in particular is in the arrangement of the quiet “Bounty,” with its brushed snares and acoustic bass backing the fingerpicked acoustic guitar and the melancholy lyrics. That one’s followed immediately by the dramatic slow rocker “One Million Flowers” with a circus-like keyboard driving the mildly psychedelic proceedings. Also bordering psych territory is the arrangement of “Stars, False, Fading,” a shuffling Waitsian ramble with a variety of electric guitar sounds and droning electronics.
This is one case in which a year spent in studios working on an album seems to have paid off. The words, delivered in that supple alto, are always the focus but they’re engagingly highlighted by the rest of the whole package. I hope we’ll be hearing more from Tiny Ruins.
(Ba Da Bing, 2019)