In a world that is barely surviving, hope is a precious commodity and nowhere is this better expressed than in the optimism of those embracing a new kaupapa. Out of catharsis comes a determination that things will not remain the same, that business as usual is not an option, and that we might build a better humanity and lighten our load on the planet. The Garden celebrates this new beginning with a collection of organic works to accompany the mahi that is before us.
Swingbridge is the thought-child of Otago singer/songwriter Bridget Ellis; at once a solo endeavour, a duo (with singer and multi-instrumentalist Lynley Caldwell) and a full band. Here we have an album after a long hiatus, a voice remembered from last century and a plethora of short-lived line ups with many other inventive musicians. She has outdone herself here. Maybe the clue is in Shoes, “I don’t walk in your shoes/You don’t walk in mine;” and a call to action: “C’mon shoes, start walking.”
The thing about Ellis’ vocals is her purity, she sings only what she means to — free from the meaningless melisma we are battered with today, and with the merest hint of vibrato leaving only the song and the lyric. Now we are transported. The production here is largely transparent, never getting in the way of the song; remarkable considering the line-up of heavyweights on both sides of the console.
The album opens with the driving Day to Day effortlessly capturing enduring domesticity in a poppy refrain, setting the scene as the next track, Something Missing, alerts us that all is not well. Still the energy is high and dark, and Shoes carries us forward in the mind-movie this album is creating.
Room of Love is the most delightful country waltz: with Caldwell’s perfect harmonies, it would grace any Emmy-Lou collection. The Joan-Armatrading-esque Plastic Coated People, the gentle balladry of Howl at the Moon and the harmonically twisted Hurtling all make for compulsive listening, emptying out nicely with Keep it in the Ground with its jazz sensibilities.
If there’s a sitter for a single to be lifted this album it would be Slides Down Chutes with its soft dance grooves and rolling bass line. The album rounds out with the title track like a safe landing, an epic vocal duet that gives context, acoustically and lyrically, to the aural journey we’ve been on.
The album cover text boasts a celebrity-status list of appearances and contributors, but in the end it’s the quality of the Swingbridge dynamic that imbues this body of work and all of these songs will be rendered live to equal effect. While never losing its feminine hue, Swingbridge does not pussyfoot around its subject matter. Swingbridge and The Garden will endure as a somewhat timeless contribution in an era of uncertainty and, yes, dare we say it, hope.
Text by Mike Moroney, February 2021.