Charlotte Carpenter’s 2016 release ‘How Are We Ever To Know?‘ was a deeply personal selection of songs that showed the British singer-songwriter unashamedly exorcising some emotional demons. The nature of the material didn’t always make it an entirely comfortable listen, but it was more than obvious Carpenter had a huge talent. The following year’s ‘Shelter’ brings more personal issues to the table, but tempers the hurt with more of a varied musical style.
The EP’s title cut certainly isn’t as maudlin as expected. The use of heavy muted chords against a forthright voice lends a retro sound that has a real power from the very beginning, but musically things seem fuller than before. As things progress, ‘Shelter’ asserts its place as a perfect opening statement. “Tell me how you’re gonna love me / Are you gonna let me breathe?” Carpenter implores at the beginning of the second verse, very much showing that the more forthright musical stance doesn’t impede on her gift for cuttingly honest lyrics. The mix of heavy guitar reverb and string sounds lends a very full listening experience, perfect for her voice – further showing a classically retro style the artist is slowly making her own – as she explores a push/pull effect of questioning a relationship’s motivations during the verses while simultaneously offering strength in return on a very hook-laden chorus. That chorus casts aside the muted sounds and blossoms into a huge and almost radio friendly hook, with Charlotte pushing her voice much further. It’s a great voice, too; full of emotion, confident yet somehow still vulnerable. With an unflinching style that positively burns, in all, it’s a fantastic opener.
In direct contrast, ‘Fire’ might seem a little unfinished due to a one-word chorus, but what it lacks in a lyrical hook, it makes up for with sheer musical gusto. A number that finds Carpenter reaching for a rockier sound all around, the drums are sparse, but the guitars – retaining her favoured retro buzz – are cranked to eleven as she throws out muted chords and a fuzzy, garage rock groove. Over a fearsome chug, Carpenter adopts a near-bluesy cry and to hear this is like experiencing Heather Nova sitting in on a session by The Dead Weather. With a gutsy arrangement and a great voice out front, it’s brevity and grit ensures it’s got guts. (Although originally issued as a standalone download back in 2016, this is the kind of number that’ll have a place on your playlist of favourites for months.
For older fans, ‘Hey Mr. Cowboy’ marks a return to more of a comfort zone, as Charlotte throws out Chris Isaak-ish guitar sounds, heavy on the reverb and echo. The music never really changes from its initial intent and the almost percussion free arrangement means the song is left to stand alone, but all the same, it’s the perfect compliment for her soft cry of a voice and those echoing guitars never get old. The sparseness here is constantly appealing: the ear is constantly drawn to the guitar offering sounds that are spooked and lost, as if coming from somewhere on a desert plain or David Lynch soundtrack, while Carpenter’s quieter voice is always welcoming. Retro music rarely sounded so cool. Closing the EP, Charlotte puts herself much closer to a traditional acoustic singer songwriter, but don’t expect a 70s tweeness – she approaches the acoustic sounds in very much her own way. The vocals are dark and haunting, with the repeated refrain of “it ain’t you” sounding both aching and mildly threatening at the same time. Hearing fingers slide up and down the frets gives everything a feeling of genuine intimacy, while the accompanying bass offers occasional deep notes that accentuate the deep emotive edge. Is it as good as ‘Cowboy’? Possibly not, but the old fashioned style shows a surprising maturity for a songwriter of barely twenty five years old at the time of recording. There’s a lot to be said for having access to a classic record collection…
‘Shelter’ is far more varied that any of Charlotte’s previous works but there’s still a sense of musical vision and an unflinching honesty running through the centre of the songs that’s unmistakable. Between the sheer hurt of ‘Lately’ and grit and fuel of ‘Fire’, this EP shows great artistic growth – and while still very introspective, it doesn’t wilfully shut out prospective listeners. Overall, it’s a superb addition to her catalogue.