Album Review: Kelli Ali – Rocking Horse

Trip-hop, sunny chart pop, industrial electronica; to say Kelli Ali’s career to this point has been diverse is something of an understatement. That her third solo album, Rocking Horse, is a collection of pastoral folk would only seem to confirm the success-grabbing accusations of her critics – didn’t Goldfrapp release a sound-redefining album of pastoral folk only last spring?  

There are two important factors which should serve to silence the doubters. Firstly, although Rocking Horse does indeed share considerable similarities with Goldfrapp’s Seventh Tree, Ali began recording it after a nomadic trip across the Californian wilderness in 2004, so claims of imitation seem a little unfair. Secondly, on many of the album’s thirteen tracks the reinvention pays off handsomely, the sparse, simple arrangements foregrounding her frail, elegant vocals. 

Produced in Glasgow by Fat Kat’s Max Richter, the album is full of baroque, almost medieval instrumentation, string quartets and ethereal flute melodies. This approach works better in some places than others; at its worst, Rocking Horse is pretty but unremarkable, high on atmospherics but little else. What prevents the album from becoming identikit Katie Melua-esque loveliness are the dark currents running through the best songs; the title track, with its “You must set your demons free” opener, builds to a genuinely thrilling climax. ‘The Savages’ combines a dusky, chiming guitar part with what Ali calls “a nursery rhyme for the damned” to create something that manages to be almost gothically creepy. Indeed, later tracks play to this strength, ‘Flowers’ being a six-minute study in creeping melancholia, its cello part not sounding dissimilar to a cut from Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left. The album’s final song, before a closing instrumental epilogue, is the pretty, major-key ‘What To Do’, breathing life into the hoary “life is a journey” cliché. What Ali does now is anyone’s guess; on previous form, expect an album of French house.

Words: Matt Elton