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June 10, 2011 5:16 pm

Emmy the Great, St Pancras Old Church, London

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Emma-Lee Moss
 Emmy the Great gets even

Emma-Lee Moss’s debut album, which came out in 2009, was impressive – though it was also tinged with the irritating cutesiness of her Emmy the Great stage name. Two years later the stage name remains but the irritating cutesiness has vanished.

The Londoner’s new album Virtue, out next week, is a captivating account of a relationship gone wrong. It follows the break-up of Moss’s engagement to a man who left her when he found God and decided to become a missionary. She has chosen to get even by debuting Virtue on a tour of church venues. Truly, hell hath no sense of irony like a woman scorned.

At St Pancras Old Church, Moss performed in front of a medieval triptych of the crucifixion and below an emblem showing the dove of peace. A backing band and two singers accompanied her, though the straightforward nature of the music – no solos or tricky tempo changes – meant that attention rarely strayed from the singer. Moss has been lumped in with the Marlings and Mumfords of London’s new-folk scene. It’s a fair comparison – she has the requisite acoustic guitar and cut-glass diction – though she’s cut from slightly different cloth.

One song, “Creation”, began with probing, off-centre guitar chords reminiscent of the high priest of indie-noise, Steve Albini. An un-Mumford-like taste for 1980s US alt-rock came across with “Lake of Fire”, a cover of a Meat Puppets track.

The set began with Virtue’s opener, “Dinosaur Sex”, a track that wittily if depressingly links erotic fulfilment with fears of extinction in the age of climate change, Moss singing: “Dinosaur sex led to nothing/And maybe we will lead to nothing.” In an inadvertent illustration of the subject matter, a loud electric hum from the bass guitar extinguished the song’s gentle melody.

Happily the sound quality swiftly improved. “Iris” rattled by to a lively chicka boom beat. “Creation” built into an irresistible mantra-like rocker. “North” was sweetly lilting indie-folk about missionaries. “Trellick Tower”, a sparse piano ballad, took direct aim at Moss’s ex.

She sang with poise rather than great gusts of feeling, her voice pitched somewhere between Norah Jones’s smoothness and Leonard Cohen’s semi-conversational knowingness. As with Cohen, religious imagery recurred in the lyrics – praying, blessedness, relics, rapture – pointedly wrenched from their original context into a secular romantic one. It was a performance of charm and intelligence, though the church in one sense had the last word. Its wooden chairs were fantastically uncomfortable.

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