With her blue hair and facial piercings, Eliza Carthy doesn’t seem like someone who’d have a background in traditional folk music. The daughter of English folk musicians Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson, Carthy’s Angels & Cigarettes takes an assertively modern approach to music without ever abandoning her folk roots. Her combination of conventional fiddle and folk instruments with drum loops and dance beats isn’t necessarily original, but it is still exciting.
While her music has obviously taken cues from the embrace of approachable trip-hop influenced artists like Dido, Carthy pushes the boundaries more, making everything darker and heavier. She maintains a certain radio-friendly sensibility, but the blunt honesty of her songs proves she’s more than just another disposable singer/songwriter.
Despite the more unique qualities of her music, it is Carthy’s voice that truly carries Angels and Cigarettes. Buoyant yet wounded, it exudes a passionate yet fragile strength. While her lyrics are often daring, Carthy sings them as if she’s a bit fearful of her own candor. The unaffected openness in her voice is both capable of anger and sweetness while never disregarding either.
Carthy’s bold lyrics have a critical sincerity to them, whether she’s using them again others or herself. On “Beautiful Girl” she sings “Beautiful girl what can you do / Everywhere you go people looking at you / And all the fat girls want to be you friend too” with unabashed bitterness. However, on “The Company of Men” she turns on herself, singing “I’ve sat and listened for hours / To boys that I’m not sure I liked.” Her lyrics always get to the point, even when they’re more abstract, such as on the haunting “Whole”.
Eliza Carthy’s Angels & Cigarettes is inspiringly honest and beautiful, even in its moments of torment. Carthy’s strength as a songwriter and a singer gives her music a depth and elegance that are a tribute to her roots in folk. Even though her situations and arrangements are modern, Carthy is able to make these songs’ emotions timeless.