by Philip Moss
On her second EP, Helen Ballentine grows as a performer – stretching her experimental envelope while continuing to hone her voice as an artist
Signing to one of the world’s biggest independent labels is a daunting experience for anyone – let alone a songwriter right at the start of their career with only a handful of songs to their name. Throw into the mix a pandemic hitting as you schedule your debut EP, and, suddenly, the opportunity to hone your craft on the road becomes a none starter. But Helen Ballentine has used the time wisely. Following October’s Skullcrusher EP, led by the stunning, Day of Show, her second collection gives us a further glimpse of an artist who is not only finding herself as a writer, but as an artist looking to experiment through structure, instrumentation, melody and her voice.
As a debut, the Skullcrusher EP was the perfect introduction to Ballentine. Recorded at home with her partner, Noah Weinman, it let just enough light through the keyhole – giving the world a glimpse of her skin dappling voice – but keeping an air of mystique around the artist. Bar the odd plucking of banjo, or the swell of organ, the arrangements were largely sparse – her beautifully constructed melodies leading the Grouper or later period Mount Eerie inspired songwriting.
On Storm in Summer, the envelope is pushed further. Opener, Windshield, sees the banjo further forward in the mix. The arrangement is wider – more sprawling – blurring the foggy lines between traditional songwriting and art. And although still right at the start of her career, the repetitive vocal and looser structure already feels like an entry point to the next stage of her career. But Ballentine hasn’t turned her back on traditional songwriting. The verse parts of Song for Nick Drake feature her best melody to date. There is still a level of constraint: rather than blowing up into the cross-over territory now inhabited by Phoebe Bridgers, which Ballentine seems more than capable of, it remains in the lo-fi world. But there is a wariness too – the title track is the most panoramic track shared so far, and ‘I’m still lying on the floor – right where I began’ shows a humbleness, and that nothing is being taken for granted.
The quality of songwriting on her two releases, thus far, proves exactly why Secretly Canadian asked her to join their roster of incredible musicians – and Helen Ballentine is embracing the opportunity. With a long player her next potential move, she is starting show herself. You just get the feeling it will be on her terms, and in her own time.
Storm in Summer is out now on Secretly Canadian.
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