Still fresh off her 2019 solo debut, Melbourne-based Grace Cummings has all the makings of a folk powerhouse, with a strong, forceful voice (aptly described in a release as “devastating”) that amplifies the passion and turmoil lurking in her songs. Her self-produced sophomore album Storm Queen (★★★★☆) is all about embracing the emotional tempestuousness that its title is meant to convey and which is apparent from the album’s first moments.
Over her still-young solo career, Cummings has garnered enormous praise for her prowess on stage and the sheer magnetic energy of her live performances. While this is unfortunate for most of us who will not have the opportunity to see her live anytime soon, just listening to her distinct voice and the ways she deploys it on Storm Queen makes it easy to understand why her live work is so captivating. Cummings’ raw, unvarnished vocals lend her songs a spontaneous, at times even improvisational quality.
The whole album, in fact, has a spontaneity to it, no doubt helped along by the small number of takes it apparently took to record most of the album’s tracks. The loud, echoing piano chords that drop suddenly in “Freak” feel at first like another song intruding on her soft, plaintive crooning, adding drama that is bolstered by the backing vocals that enter towards the end. The fiddle breakdown in “Raglan” adds a depth and space to what, up until that point, is one of the more intimate songs on Storm Queen.
Most of the album’s titular storminess is expressed in the lyrics and in the unexpected twists and flourishes Cummings adds in, but she does occasionally allow the turmoil to find a more direct expression in her songwriting. The single “Up in Flames” is particularly moving, her voice tight and clear singing about loss and devastation over tense guitar riffs. The image she paints of burnt gum leaves on the water is a moving one, especially delivered in the desperate quiver she lends to it.
Later in the album, Cummings is at her most dramatic and least restrained on “No Time For Dying,” a song with a jazzy sense of improvisation and dissonant, droning guitars. If she were not there in the middle to anchor it, it would easily sound like a song from another album altogether.
Although the album’s title and the promotion around it are meant to highlight its tempestuousness, what is less apparent from the outset is just how much Storm Queen is indebted to its quieter, more intimate moments. Songs like “Two Little Birds” and “This Day in May” draw poignancy from their stripped-back quality, featuring Cummings with little else aside from her guitar, a piano and her voice. Those tracks make great use of her vocal talents, but in the latter half of the album they begin to blur together a bit.
Perhaps aware that one more might be too much, she begins the album closer “Fly a Kite” along similar stripped-back lines, but brings in an unexpected operatic trill around the middle of the song before returning to harmonize with it.
That unusual but welcome addition offers a reminder that as spontaneous as Cummings can seem, there is still a thoughtful deliberateness behind even the moments that sound the most improvised.
What is never lost throughout Storm Queen is that Grace Cummings herself is the force behind it, intimately familiar with her tumultuous inner world and firmly in control of it. She masterfully walks the line between drama and simplicity, conveying tension and darkness with a notable gentleness.
On Storm Queen, Cummings proves herself a vocal force of nature in her own right, and is sure to be a promising folk singer-songwriter to watch going forward.
Storm Queen is available to stream and purchase. Follow her on Instagram at @gracecummingsmusic.
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