On “School of Design,” the second song on New Zealand band Tiny Ruins’ wistful new album Olympic Girls, frontwoman Hollie Fullbrook sings, “I was struck by a feeling / it’s hard to describe.” Listening to the album results in a similar sensation. It’s a record that conjures all sorts of roomy vibes, but not ones that are easily categorized as one genre or mood. The 11 songs on Olympic Girls are all lush and bold (mostly) acoustic ballads, but each leaves you with an aftertaste all its own. The songs are charming ruminations on nature and humanity that, with their anti-chaotic energy and eerie sound effects, feel almost out-of-place in 2019.
Fullbrook originally conceived Tiny Ruins as a solo endeavor, but now in her third album with the project, she’s a bandleader backed by bassist Cass Basil, percussionist Alex Freer and guitarist/producer Tom Healy. They were previously signed to New Zealand’s stalwart Flying Nun Records, but have now transferred to Brooklyn’s Ba Da Bing Records, once the home of Sharon Van Etten and still the label of fellow folk crooner Julie Byrne. And Ba Da Bing is a sensible place for Tiny Ruins to be: Fullbrook brings to the table the same type of noirish lyrics and vocals that drew listeners to Van Etten and Byrne. All three women specialize in emotional, thoughtful folk-leaning balladry.
Where Fullbrook’s music differs from Byrne’s and Van Etten’s (her earlier efforts, at least) is in the production. Her lyrics and skilled instrumentation need no embellishments, but the record glows and glistens with soft touches of production, added only for a little twinkle that goes a long way. The same locomotive acoustics are the underbelly for many of these tracks, but diverse sound effects—some synthetic woodwinds on “Sparklers,” a lively flute on “Olympic Girls,” spacey slide guitar on “How Much,” or maybe some choral sighs on “Holograms”—help to keep things interesting.
The opener and title track is one of the best songs on the album; a blazing folk ballad and a yearn for freedom from whatever is holding you back. “Weren’t we born to break out?” Fullbrook asks. “To feel the muddy banks swell?” She also makes the first of a few references on the album to astrology, the planets and our human need to make predictions: “Forecasting when and where we’d end up…My star sign resolver.”
There’s also mention of the future on “Holograms,” one of the loveliest songs of 2019 so far. If you were one, like me, who found The 1975’s behemoth A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships to be a little (or a lot) over-the-top, you might find the summaries of modern life on “Holograms” a little easier to swallow. The song is a refreshing take on the absurdities of technology, a criticism of the idea that it could progress so much we might even be able to bring people back. “How will we come back?” Fullbrook sings. “Rise and shine as holograms?” The saying goes that our loved ones never truly leave us, but Fullbrook would argue the opposite: When they’re gone, they’re gone. There’s no way to bring them back.
Olympic Girls is warm, bold and anthemic. It’s sonically rooted in whimsy, but it supports some heavy ideas, an enchanting contrast of content and sound. And with that magic, Fullbrook sought out a better understanding of herself and the world around her. Based on the results, it was a successful mission indeed.