It’s been pretty intriguing to observe the entirely singular trajectory of Beth Jeans Houghton’s musical career. As far back as 2009 she was refusing to comply with various attempts to shoehorn her into freak-folk micro-genres and onto ‘next big thing’ lists. Displaying absolutely no desire to be rushed, it wasn’t until 2012 that her debut LP Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose emerged under the guise of Beth Jeans Houghton and the Hooves of Destiny. As it turned out, it was a rangy and ambitious record, completely unpredictable and yet in a slightly perverse way entirely what you might have expected after what had come before.
Fast forward to 2015, and the Hooves have been mothballed, and in their place is Du Blonde, apparently 'not a persona or a character, but Beth Jeans Houghton ripping it up and starting again'. Is it really though? Well, Welcome Back to Milk is definitely a more direct affair than anything in which Beth has previously been involved. This was hinted at on first single ‘Black Flag’, an irresistibly confident three minutes of gritty, grungy pop which gave reason to believe that we might be in for an album of straight-up garage rock.
While such suggestions wouldn’t be completely off the mark, it would also be selling Du Blonde short to speak of Welcome Back to Milk in such terms because it’s a much more three dimensional affair than all that. ‘After the Show’ exemplifies this exquisitely. It’s a hell of an achievement by anyone’s standards, a gorgeous mini epic of a pop song which aches with an intense nostalgia for love gone awry. Skip forward a couple of tracks and there’s a similarly skyscraping piece of work in ‘Hunter’, which is replete with the same sense of vulnerability and comes on like some kind of slightly weird take on Phil Spector. Both of these songs are laced with sadness, but the way they’re delivered by Houghton also creates this intangible sense that ultimately she’s entirely in control of the situations she’s singing about, a feeling which will be revisited time and again on the record.
This single-mindedness is a big part of what drives Welcome Back to Milk forward and is undoubtedly the source of much of its energy. ‘Hard to Please’ is gloriously pissed-off, with Houghton snapping “shut the fuck up and let me bore you”. The bristling anger’s a recurring theme throughout, with Houghton’s versatile voice taking on a new level of guttural howl on ‘Chips To Go’ while she positively spits the words to ‘Mr Hyde’, a song where “Jekyll’s in the kitchen sucking off Hyde”.
While it’s pretty clear that there’s little room for fucking about on this record, there are still a few instances where Houghton displays the same playful sense of adventure as has characterised her previous work. It’s unquestionable that she possesses the imagination to pull off the complete reinvention which Du Blonde essentially constitutes (and probably many more beside in the future), but if you look hard enough you can still see the odd uniting thread to her past and the occasional curveball which wouldn’t have been entirely out of place on Yours Truly. ‘Mind Is On My Mind’, for instance, is a deliciously quirky sliver of pop where Beth manages to upstage her guest vocalist Samuel T. Herring. Meanwhile, right among the venom of ‘If You’re Legal’, out of nowhere she suddenly channels ‘Knees Up Mother Brown’.
Our first taste of Houghton’s new project, then, is a confident and brilliantly delivered collection of songs. What she does next really is anyone’s guess - perhaps she doesn’t even know herself. Ultimately, though, I guess this complete lack of predictability is a big part of what makes Beth Jeans Houghton such a great artist. There aren’t many musicians in the country as creative and as interesting as her at this point in time, and Welcome Back To Milk represents another triumph in her weird and wonderful saga.
8Paul Brown's Score