The cover image for Conversations, the début album by Woman’s Hour, consists of nothing more than a pyramid, in monochrome, standing solitary in its space. The pyramid, one of nine that the band designed with fine artist Oliver Chanarin, is a stark and minimalist image, its alien precision not threatening, not relaxing. The visual style is carried over into the band’s videos: for title track Conversations, the four members of Woman’s Hour perform an accumulating series of synchronised movements and steps, inspired by choreographer Trisha Brown’s dance piece Group Primary Accumulation (1973); the video to Darkest Place consists of a discomfiting tight shot of Fiona Burgess’ face suffering manipulative treatment.
Just as its visual accompaniment displays a unity of purpose, so it is with the album itself. Occasionally sparse, frequently lush, every beat of every one of Conversations’ sleekly minimal and soulful tracks feels precise and measured. There’s a consistency of sound just as there is with the band’s imagery - monochrome videos, a set of nine pyramids placed on stage, one of which doubles up as that implacable cover art. Largely serene, but never boring or bland, each song contributes to an album-long consistency of theme, mood and colour. From the opening pulsating keyboard chords of Unbroken Sequence to The Day That Needs Defending, the music acts as canvas, allowing Burgess’ vocals and lyrics to paint over with texture. Not that the music merely plays host - Conversations is shot through with subtle but arresting moments: the dramatic switch from verse to chorus in Unbroken Sequence, the bouncy chorus and instrumental outro to Darkest Place, the nearly ever-present synths of Our Love Has No Rhythm flowing like a gentle river through the track.
Then there’s In Stillness We Remain, with its gorgeous outro - a burst of sunlight in the greyscale, albeit one as glimpsed through a fine curtain perhaps: Woman’s Hour don’t really do dazzling - their music is more like a glare-reducing polarizing filter. Filters tend to block out signal, and just as that pyramid on the cover is isolated in a bare environment, Conversations is an album of empty spaces: To The End is more space than sound, staccato beats punctuated with silent responses; Our Love Has No Rhythm fills its emptiness with the most angelic of backing vocals. Sometimes, not much seems to be happening at all. Two Sides of You marries a very stately rhythm to a barely wavering synth. When a guitar plays melody, the bass stays still, waiting its turn before countering. Often, it feels like audio time-lapse - “When you’re gone I feel empty. Need your love to surround me.” Burgess sings in the stunning Devotion, and you feel like the unfolding drama is just a compression of something far longer.
Like a suburban net curtain overlooking a perfectly manicured lawn, however, the music also hides the emotional turmoil within. Conversations is very much an album of power struggles, of emotional conflict and, sometimes, resolution. “Only if you ever wanted me to be someone else, would I not seem the same to you” sings Fiona Burgess on To The End. On album opener Unbroken Sequence: “If I stop delay and I quit, would it be better for you?. If I rest, I break and resist, would it be better for you?”. The “awkward moments” of Conversations. Sometimes the time for resolution seems long missed: “wherever I look you’re always there, I close my eyes and it’s even worse” (Darkest Place).
I can’t remember who first brought Woman’s Hour to my attention, but I’ve been waiting (reasonably) patiently for this album since that day. The wait has been more than comfortably rewarded: Conversations is a beautifully poised work - delicate and nuanced, it doesn’t try to surprise (you will either fall in love inside one chorus of Unbroken Sequence or not at all) but like a simple, random act of kindness, it wins your heart without needing to resort to a grand gesture.