The hotly tipped British-Lebanese singer Nadine Khouri’s ‘The Salted Air’ is a stunning set of smoky outsider pop, marrying sad-core gauze to torch song ballads in an idiosyncratic style that captivates, surprises and builds tension at every turn: notes hang in the air, organ drones simmer and husky, meditative vocals create an overarching atmosphere of unhurried, plaintive drift.
Recorded in a basement in Bristol, with PJ Harvey’s frequent collaborator John Parish and Ali Chant shaping her low-register, forlorn drizzle, the breathy singer-songwriter is accompanied here by a pin-sharp ensemble comprising Huw Bennett, Jean-Marc Butty, J Allen, Ruban Byrne, Florian Tanant, Adrian Crowley and Emma Smith from James Yorkston’s band. Between them, they achieve a sonorous soundscape around Khouri’s poised, delicate delivery, dipping in and out of shoe gaze, Lana Del Rey, Mazzy Star, Stina Nordenstam, Melanie De Biasio, Julee Cruise and even Virginia Woolf for its reference points.
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This assured debut opens with the ethereal fog of ‘Thru You I Awaken’, where Khouri’s smouldering, unadorned voice is gradually accompanied by feather-light strings and a sombre harmonium drone. The record’s themes of disconnection, loss and transformation are established on this and the stirring ‘I Ran Thru The Dark (To The Beat of My Heart)’, a psych-folk cousin of Portishead’s ‘The Rip’ that commences with a simple acoustic guitar figure before slowly building to a thrilling, goosebump-inducing denouement of violins. ‘Jerusalem Blue’ offers velvety, subdued whispers against unobtrusive intimations of piano, guitar and strings, ‘Daybreak’ is a tremulous, unshowy lament propelled by military drums and the bewitching ‘Broken Star’ languidly builds suspense with creeping chords on a bedrock of Moroccan tar and organ bass.
‘Shake It Like A Shaman’ is the collection’s siren call and curve ball, injecting a change of pace with a rhythmic clatter that recalls the work of PJ Harvey and Bat For Lashes, yet feels out of step with the album’s predominantly wistful, will-o’-the-wisp fragility. ‘The Salted Air’ sounds like a lost cut from the’Twin Peaks’ soundtrack, a slo-mo shuffle that slips through the shadows of minor-key melancholy wrapped around a gently picked ukulele: the effect is fragrant, wasted and woozy, conjuring a potent mood of flickering 3am disquiet.
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On ‘Surface Of The Sea’, she intones that “I can’t see what the future holds, but it blows right through me”, and this stoicism is reflected in the shift in musical tempo, with the shimmer and reverb being replaced by an Americana-flecked country scamper: this is one of the punchiest pieces on the album.
The long-player concludes with the dusty lilt of ‘Catapult’, a brooding piece that pivots around sensual ripples of organ, gently twanging pedal steel guitar and Khouri’s canny grasp of darkly shaded American gothic and freak-folk. It’s impossibly lonesome and darkly enchanted, suffused with an eerie, enigmatic longing.
‘The Salted Air’ is a piece of work that revels in a misty, devotional contemplation that demands a significant level of engagement from the listener, but you’ll find yourself going back to the beginning and listening again and again, such is its wondrous, complex charm. Khouri weaves a vivid, cinematic spell, her impressionistic subtleties make ‘The Salted Air’ soar.