The Ukulele is an often-underrated instrument with its toy town looks, four strings tuned to the asymmetrical perfection of G-C-E-A (the guitar is E-A-D-G-B-E). But this humble instrument was the springboard for Dot Allison’s new album Heart Shaped Scars. It’s not unusual for musicians to get inspiration from writing on an instrument they have never played, as the struggle inherently throws up new ways of approaching songwriting and breaks the spell of familiar instruments which come with unconscious muscle memory and compositional familiarity.
Heart Shaped Scars contains a fiercely delicate set of songs, held together by spider’s webs and the incredible mycelium of traditional music which has drawn Dot Allison away from her forays into electronica, ballads and country. The album has the feel of a community inspired by the influence of The Hebrides (where Allison has a cottage). Distance from the mainland and her previous work have allowed the songs to be forged with friends from her folk family including Sarah Campbell, Zoë Bestel (on ‘Can You Hear Nature Sing?’) and Amy Bowman (who features on ‘The Haunted’). This is an album that invites you in on a cold night and offers you a cup of tea, or something stronger, and allows you to become intoxicated by the smell of smoke from a wood fire and all the fireside bonhomie that goes with it.
The first track ‘Long Exposure’ is a brittle overture to the album, and we are not introduced gently to the more painful ideas Allison tackles; the wounds that cause the heart shaped scars. It lays out the profound damage that relationships can cause “I didn’t think you’d lie to me, my love for you it was pure like glitter on snow, I cannot quite believe the deceit, what a fool love brings”. The long exposures are echoed in the drawn-out strings, so beautifully arranged by the amazing Hannah Peel. Each track has a geographic or atmospheric facet, sketching out a bucolic landscape that runs parallel to the landscape of what Allison calls “Love, loss and a universal longing for union that seems to go with the human condition”.
I could have examined this album track by track, but it works so beautifully as a whole I would advise you jump on a ferry to Heart Shaped Scars and stay for the duration. It’s an island which stretches from the seashore to the stars but doesn’t avoid the marshes or thorny scrublands. Dot Allison may have Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell and Carole King in her record collection, but I also hear the exquisite, time-stopping qualities of Agnes Obel and Marika Hackman’s first pastoral album We Slept At Last. It’s a huge tribute to the superlative musicianship that the arrangements never trample on the bruised grace of Allison’s voice; a voice that often threatens to break but is so captivating and honest. Dot Allison should be rightfully proud of using music as “a sort of tonic or an antidote to a kind of longing, for a while at least”. She has managed to grow eleven beautiful flowers from such sorrowful soil and, while I would never wish pain on anyone, the fact that it helped create this album is something I am grateful for.
Review by Paul F Cook