How hushed can music get before it evaporates altogether? This is a question tackled by New York-based, British-born singer-songwriter Essie Jain's delicate debut full-length. Chamber folk-flavoured minimalism is the keyword here, as arrangements are stripped down to bare bones; a tenderly strummed acoustic guitar here, a few piano chords so soft they might have been recorded secretly at night in a flat crammed full of sleeping people (which they possibly were, as most of the album was recorded in Jain's NYC apartment), a couple of mournful notes from a cello, a few discreet emissions of brass and accordion, all topped with 29-year old Jain's blue sky clear, half-whispered vocals.
When Dirty Three percussionist Jim White's gently brushed drums enter the frame towards the end, it feels as if a wall of Marshall amps had just roared into full these-go-up-to-11 gallop, and there are moments when the pace slows to such glacial extremes and the gaps between notes grow so noticeable you half-expect the proceedings to grind to a halt.
All of which might sound frustratingly hesitant; too shy and withdrawn to command attention, but initial impressions soon turn out to be grossly misleading. There's more than a hint of Nina Nastasia to the starkly economic, amplification-dodging sound and Jain's vocals alike, but 'We Made This Ourselves' replaces the indie-folk siren's compelling air of unease with an unflinching focus on moulding slices of uncomplicated, quiet beauty tinged with an inescapable undertone of sadness. If that sounds like a recipe for inoffensive blandness, fear not: judging by this evidence, Essie Jain may well be chronically allergic to attention-seeking decibel overloads, but there's a distinctive, hypnotic power at work here, more of which is revealed with each consecutive listen.
To be fair, not all of 'We Made This Ourselves' works that well. A few tracks make the mistaken assumption that the freshness of the album's uncluttered sonic palette and intimate delivery is more than enough to compensate for an occasional lack of truly distinctive melodies, and there are bits when the unappetising prospect of sluggish musical wallpaper looms briefly on the horizon. But the highlights - the hymn-like, graceful beauty of 'Glory' and the stunning 'Loaded', so unhurried it makes Low sound like speed metal, to name just two - more than make up for the occasional stumble.
Easy listening? Nope. 'We Made This Ourselves' requires the listener's undivided attention to reveal its riches. But it fully deserves the patience it asks for, too. Music this reluctant to make a fuss has an unfortunate habit of being sidelined by noisier stuff. Make sure 'We Made This Ourselves' doesn't wound up ignored. As one of the most beautiful records of the year so far, it deserves much, much more.