Printer Clips is side-project of Paul Noonan, best known as the lead singer of Bell X1. Interestingly, he did not sit back and create a solo album in his downtime. That would have been too easy. Instead, he did an album of duets with female singers. Although PJ Harvey and Emmylou Harris declined to participate, he amassed quite a variety of singers to do these duets with. For starters, he rounded up some Irish singers, Noonan being Irish himself: Lisa Hannigan, Cathy Davey, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Gemma Hayes and Danielle Harrison. Then he rounded off the collaborations with artists from the other side of the Atlantic: Martha Wainwright, Joan as Policewoman, Julia Stone and Amy Millan. Quite an amazing collection, really. It took quite a bit of time to do all of these collaborations, though. We’re talking about approximately a decade. I’m sure many of his guests thought the collaborations would never see release by now. But, fortunately for all of us, they have been.
Folk is the word of the day — er, decade — here. Most of these songs are very quiet, subtle, folk music. Listening to his voice interplay with the women’s voices, I keep thinking of The Civil Wars, which would be my primary comparison for Paper Clips. But then The Civil Wars’ music can be very angry and boisterous and Printer Clips’ songs don’t need to get so fussed up or loud to convey real emotions to the listener. Noonan has stated that some of these songs, such as “Vapour Trails,” have “incredible personal resonance.” But most of them have more of a narrative fashion. To that end, many of the song titles sound like titles of short stories or even novels.
The album opens with the acoustic guitar-driven “Apparatchik” featuring Lisa Hannigan. Noonan and Hannigan harmonize from the get-go here. It’s not entirely perfect, her voice tending to trail slightly behind his, but it is quite beautiful, especially once the piano enters the picture. “These are the punches that we roll with / This is the ship / It’s so much easier to stomach it / I’m down with the new,” they sing. Layers and layers are added at the very end of the song and it briefly, if only for a fleeting moment, sound considerably heavier than something, say, made in a hippie commune in the ’60’s, which one might say the song as a whole sounds like.
“If I had your grace, I would burn my own,” sing Noonan and Amy Millan (of Stars fame) on “If I Had Your Grace.” Such honest declarations are the blood that runs throughout the album. “I could pin my hopes on you with a blindfold,” Noonan sings with Gemma Hayes during the especially tender track called “The Snowman.”
“The Cartographer” with Maria Doyle Kennedy is the first track on the album that finds Noonan and his guest singing the verses solo instead of the pairings singing ensemble throughout the songs; Noonan sings the first verse and she sings the next.
Joan as Police Woman sings lead as “Vapour Trails” begins. “These people hold me / And I hold them,” she sings. In fact, Noonan doesn’t actually sing on the song until the final third of the track and then he sings backing vocals more than dueting with her in the usual fashion.
The album closes with “Some Surprise” featuring the always remarkable Julia Stone. She starts off singing so softly it’s like a whisper, like a mother whispering reassuringly into her child’s ear. “Your lips come some surprise,” begins the heart-warming chorus. Later, the song grows louder and Julia opens up her voice, showing what vibrato she possesses, though she usually opts to go the subtle route. To that end, you could make the argument that Noonan’s goal with this album was to get these women to do songs they might not normally do. Whatever he was thinking, it’s a job done well.