“Tell you, I’m not fucking doing this again,” mumbles a morose Catherine Anne Davies, aka The Anchoress, after the first couple of numbers. As a one-off, she’s playing her acclaimed recent art rock debut Confessions Of A Romance Novelist in full, in sequence. Sound issues have bothered the beginning. Thankfully she shakes off the grumpiness with her wedding dress, and the mesmerising music finds its stride. Like all the best books, as characters and storylines develop, it gradually becomes unputdownable – her show is rich with theatricality.
Prior to this, Fiona Brice has made much from minimalism, looping and tracking her violin lines until they attain a state of euphoric melancholy. As violinist and/or string arranger for everyone from John Grant to Placebo and Anna Calvi, she has ‘classed-up’ dozens of other people’s albums.
Her own Bella Union debut Postcards From is a quiet revelation, offering the kind of rewarding repetitions and subtle cinematic flurries that suggest an inevitable career in film-scoring. Tonight’s understated intensity evokes Michael Nyman and Philip Glass, and probes deep into the collective psyche.
Maximalism takes a shift with The Anchoress. A three-piece string section and rhythm duo back her voice, piano and guitar. In character, she’s sporting that heavily ironic wedding dress and a giant orange headdress/crown, at least until the dress is dismissed in a moment of nudge-wink feminism. Thereafter clad in black, she moves between the album’s more uptempo rants and the sotto voce, solo piano numbers.
Her initial anxiety vaporises and momentum is acquired. That said, the album is by nature stop-start, so this is a jaggedy, jumpy set. It’s noticeable that the big Mansun influence from Paul Draper’s production is less evident; indeed, You And Only You is presented on piano, stripped down.
Doesn’t Kill You and What Goes Around remain the strongest songs, while Popular and P.S. Fuck You punch pugnaciously above their weight. The album’s denouement aims for epic, reaching elegiac. As an encore, Simple Minds’ Rivers Of Ice is performed solo, the Welsh singer having collaborated with them too.
There’s a left-of-centre, mildly perverse streak to her literary leanings that distinguishes Davies from lazily categorised ‘female singer-songwriters’. Her spirit animal seems to be closer to those of Bowie, Laurie Anderson or Sparks than Tori Amos. It’s prog in the sense that she’s challenging, different and curious. The Anchoress won’t be cantankerous for long.