It's hard to explain why Australia's Sarah Blasko is worthy of special attention ahead of a glut of singer/songwriter types pulling all manner of fancy tricks to make their work stick out from the crowd. Part of the charm of this debut LP is that it sounds blissfully devoid of any such pretention. Blasko's style is very unshowy, very unhip, and so seems flush with the freedom to express herself as she feels fit, happy to let the songs find their own identities, rather than dress them up for the gaudy pop parade. The closest frame of reference we have for her in Europe is Gemma Hayes, with her quietly experimental approach to a traditional style.
The Overture & The Underscore doesn't come racing out of the traps with a hit single - opening track "All Coming Back" is very spare and crisp, a slow brooding chug of guitar crawling under a curious lyric that suggests complex emotions but stops short of spelling out its story. The song gathers momentum in its second half, Sarah's vocal delivery sounding strangely evocative of Thom Yorke, while the arrival of a ticking electronic beat adds further to the Radiohead vibe: "What once was clothed in white/Bears the bruise of a burden". Even with the second track "Beautiful Secrets", there is a feeling of waiting for the album to start proper; the song floats along in a kind of suspended animation, still very intimate, and again building tension and release without resorting to rocking out with loud guitars. Blasko's is a clear expressive vocal style with impressive range - her accent may be a small novelty to British listeners, though in actuality it is not at all dissimilar to someone like Kate Nash, sounding well-spoken even as she litters her vocals with mangled syllables and glottal stops. The well-crafted singles bolster the middle of the record: "Don't U Eva" again substitutes raucous guitars with vocal overlays and a swelling bass to create a quickening pulse, with a handful of notes picked out on an ancient-sounding keyboard for treble. And "Perfect Now" is the record's highlight, a simple guitar ballad delivered matter-of-fact but with barely-contained emotion: "Living underneath this guilt/I can't leave a house that I built/Though I feel it sinking further every time/And the weight of my mistakes/Means that everything I touch breaks/I don't want to see you as the next in line". The song is tightened up by chopping off the end of every fourth bar, creating little moments of fluster as Sarah talks herself into committing to the breaking of a heart: "So that's why/I won't wake you where you lie/If I could now I'd freeze time/I can't find/Forever in your eyes/I should leave you while they're dry".
Overall the record sounds coherent, and each carefully-crafted song has something different to offer, so it lends itself exceptionally well to repeated listening without getting dull. The songs are intelligent and thoughtful, as if from someone who has sat quietly while shrill and insecure classmates have said their empty piece, and has now decided to speak up, on her own terms, and show some soul, in all its light ("Always Worth It") and its dark ("True Intentions"). It's always the quiet ones. Or something. Anyway, a great record.