“What a beautiful meaningless fake!”: Cardiff’s Alice Low’s releases debut EP.

Toying with pastiche, musical geography and the language of gender, ‘Transatlantic Sugar’ is an endlessly mystifying, self-consciously classic collection.

Photo: Huw Evans | Words: Lloyd Bolton

‘Transatlantic Sugar’, the debut EP from Cardiff-based artist Alice Low, is a five-track delight that showcases her outstanding songwriting ability along with a knack to evolve the ballad form far from the safety of ‘70s pastiche. Lyrically, Low’s eloquent exploration of her experience as a transgender woman advances the camp suggestion of glam towards an unflinchingly modern perspective.

Low has explained that she has written constantly about gender since her earliest musical experiments aged 16, and on ‘Transatlantic Sugar’ she shows a fresh mastery of the subject. Her lyrics cleverly play with gendered language as they shift between humour and poignance. On ‘Show Business’, for example, the imagined discovery that “I am a man again” repeats and morphs between punchline and tragedy as the context shifts from sarcastic affirmation to haunted paranoia. The chorus takes the alienated exposure of performance as a metaphor for an experience of constantly questioning and asserting one’s gender identity. With tongue-in-cheek, she offsets the anxiety of that situation, singing with sarcastic breeze, “If I find myself under the spotlight, wait, oh no, I’m having a baby.”

While it is easy to nod along to these richly theatrical ballads and think smilingly of ‘Hunky Dory’, there is a decidedly contemporary streak colouring these compositions. Low’s work, especially in the context of her dramatic live sets, refers to work by fellow Cardiff residents Aldous Harding and H. Hawkline, both of whom evidently approve, having each offered her support slots this year. Low shares their appreciation for intelligent and pluralistic lyricism and that instinct for delivering a line with maximum expressiveness.

‘The Master’ is dominated by a smoothly confident glam-lounge vocal style, but on the chorus her voice slides into something guttural and primally desperate. Where the lyrical content could be received as glossed over up to this point, here it comes crashing into focus with a pleading, “Can’t you hear me crying, Mummy? Can’t you hear me cry?” Then, from this moment of pure vulnerability, Low is able to rapidly reassemble a playful façade in a singsong “cry-hi-hi-hi.” Constant juxtaposition of the melodic and fun against harsh home truths opens up great depths to these tracks. The sadness that inspires much of it never feels self-pitying, while the highs never leave the sight of the terms upon which they were wrought.

The EP is full of delightfully weird musical moments that further stray from its ballad-rock core, building a unique and confident wholeness into the collection. The motif of poised mechanical riffs that introduce the opening and closing tracks and punctuate each song suggests the influence of Cate le Bon, as do the ascending major key runs that dance across the EP. ‘Never Girls’ tears back the predominant gentleness of the collection to confront the expressionistic chaos that is constantly hinted at, with the self-destructive fury of the likes of other modern psych-pop experimenters Foxygen and the now-discredited Ariel Pink. Though less perfect on the traditional terms the other tracks work on, it feels like a necessary gasp to contextualise the whole EP.

Low’s splicing of old sounds with new works in parallel with her addressing the identities she has known, across gender experiences and musical styles . Her debut EP under her current stage name embraces artifice, uncertainty and hard-fought glamour, the saccharine Hollywood kitsch that the title ‘Transatlantic Sugar’ suggests. The prechorus of ‘Fruitcake’ captures a simultaneous attraction to and recoiling from such fiction: “I’ve got to change my face, this one’s a fake, but what a beautiful meaningless fake.”

Postcard Records founder Alan Horne had an adage that bands should, “Just write classics”, and it feels as if ‘Transatlantic Sugar’ was created with this kind of premise in mind. There is a sense of self-conscious confidence to Low’s writing on this collection, which constantly has one eye on sounding definitive. Indeed, she cites the stacking of five singles on side one of ‘Hounds of Love’ as a particular influence on the form of this EP. The result is something whole and definitive, with ingeniously composed songs housing beguiling lyric-writing that teases the confessional.