[sic] Magazine

Paper Dollhouse – A Box Painted Black

It’s a current peeve up there with the sweeping critical misuse of “pretentious” that anything less than cheery automatically gets dubbed as “gothic”. Much has been made of Astrud Steehouder ‘s melancholy atmospherics, but one of The Sisters Of Mercy she truly ain’t. To these ears, her decidedly home-recorded singer-songwriting has much more in common with the echo-y micro-genre attic-core – the not unwelcome capture of everyday life into her roomy folk would seem to confirm it: a train/plane, children at play, a door clicking home into its frame.

This said, Steehouder does know a thing or two about the dark side as she concurrently fronts Rayographs whose strong self-titled debut last year shared a mildly macabre affinity with shriekback pioneers Kasms . Further blurring the lines, Paper Dollhouse , her current solo project, happens to be named after a cult 80s horror film based on the power of imagination.

Then there’s A Box Painted Black ‘s production (or lack of) to consider. Skeletal at best, its many scuffs, clicks and fades are reminiscent of dusty demo-quality tapes. Steehouder also has previous in the under-produced market, contributing backing vocals for the wonderful A Grave With No Name shoegaze/anti-folk hybrid Mountain Debris . Clearly she likes her material like this, which overall maybe a wise preference as overly polished these intangible tracks would certainly lose their intimacy and potentially their identity too.

That’d be a real shame because the captivating, pin-drop folk of “Golden Ships” is made all the more real and powerful due to its audible fretboard exchanges. That same less-is-more ethos allows “Black Oak Tree” to burn with the black fire of early, raw PJ Harvey . In turn, “The Town” is given its eerie qualities by the recording hiss that features between picked strings. A similar trick lets a chilly draft permeate “William”, whereas the timeless “Daises” manages to recall a super-minimal Laura Marling skipping along some divide marked dream/nightmare.

More than adept at such ill-at-ease lullabies, Steehouder occasionally steps out to challenge herself, such as on the multi-tracked oddity “I Dreamt You More Than Ever” in which overlapping streams of spoken word run parallel with layers of non-traditional guitarmanship and segues to evocative rainfall. Overlooking its jarringly abrupt finish, the instrumental “Icestorm” introduces a bleak, cinematic piano to proceedings, while the striking closer “Moon” has Steehouder stretching and looping her vocal into a windblown cry as her otherworldly guitar jangles align with the organic simplicity of Julianna Barwick ‘s recent heroics.

With its tales of hopeless obsession, doodles, allusions and notes to self, listening to A Box Painted Black is at times like leafing through someone’s secret diary. Undeniably, there’s a morbid sense of apprehension that accompanies pouring over a half-sketched soul, yet, true to human nature, one can’t help but keep returning to these ephemeral passages, these stark, screaming statements that tantalisingly taper off into blank space.

Advised downloads: “Black Oak Tree” and “Moon”.

~A Box Painted Black is out now on Finders Keepers .~

Paper Dollhouse @ soundcloud