Australian expat Emily Barker continues her quest to master the songwriter’s art on her nautically-themed third album Almanac, her second release with chamber-folk trio The Red Clay Halo (Anna Jenkins, Jo Silverston and Gill Sandell) and her most acute attempt to date.
Though still a relatively well kept secret, Barker came to wider public attention when a track from the band’s 2008 album Despite The Snow was used in the title sequence for BBC crime series ‘Wallander’. That Barker’s atmospheric tune fit so comfortably with the programme’s melancholy Scandinavian feel perhaps gives you some insight into The Red Clay Halo’s MO, but don’t be misled; not everything that springs from Barker’s pen is so misty and downbeat. Almanac is full of moments of joy and real uplift. Decorated liberally with flute and strings, ‘Billowing Sea’ has a cinematic quality that would make a splendid addition to the soundtrack of a movie adaptation of one of George Mackay Brown’s seafaring stories. There is island life in its lyrics, a tang of the sea, the echo of a shanty and, perhaps most crucially to Barker at this stage of her career, a radio-friendly chorus that deals in the universal theme of heartbreak.
As beginnings go it’s an impressive display, and the goodness continues with ‘Reckless’. Here, strings like coastal eddys swirl as a fragile, fingerpicked guitar riff evokes the transport of emotions, of loving and mourning at the same time as a new hope hits the shore and caution gets thrown to the battering North winds. Barker’s explorations of relationships come into stark relief on ‘Ropes’, a month-by-month story of a disintegrating love. Backed by rhythmically creeping double bass, it builds to a storm as drums strike up the fury and the fomenting story reaches an emotional climax. At the end there is hope that something can be learned, a desire for magnanimity; Barker promises to “raise and flutter with a broken wing”, a striking image of life’s pulse to continue despite the pain. Rediscovering some delicacy on ‘Dancers’, Barker speaks of a desire to hide away, to catch a breath, to allow the tiredness to leave a bruised body. A fragile guitar sets the pace as the courage to start dancing again slowly returns. Waves crash, too, continuing the earlier theme.
First single ‘Little Deaths’ is a textured, gear-shifting piece of contemporary folk-pop of the sort that’s very much in favour these days. With a chorus that wields a powerfully insidious punch, it chugs along in a manner reminiscent of one of Nick Drake’s less maudlin moments; a more accomplished piece of music you’d be hard pressed to find. The pipe organ installed at London’s Royal Festival Hall features on ‘Pause’ as part of a stark arrangement; here, Barker’s singing is riveting and eerie as an out-of-context shot of electric guitar provides a little lonely spectacle. After the fullness and emotive warmth of what has gone before, ‘Pause’ provides a tonal shift into more uncomfortable territory, beautiful and cold in the way that the inside of a gothic cathedral can feel as daylight starts to fade.
’The Witch Of Pittenweem’ is another highlight that draws on the true stories of the Pittenweem witch trials of the early eighteenth century, in particular the case of Janet Cornfoot. Poor innocent Janet, it is said, was swung from a rope tied between a ship and the shore, stoned, beaten severely, and finally crushed to death beneath a door piled high with rocks. To make absolutely certain that she was dead, a man then drove his horse and cart over her body several times. Barker’s retelling of Cornfoot’s tragic demise is powerful and a commitment to the roots of the folk tradition in the tales of ordinary people. “Left me to hang between the shore and the sea,” she sings, impassioned, as the woman reaches an embittered end.
A flawless collection about the temperamental and elemental forces that continually mould us, Almanac is the most definitive statement to date of Barker and The Red Clay Halo’s considerable talent. At times it sounds a little too flawless, but when the women let rip and show the strain at the heart of their songwriting, they reach real heights. Time and tide may wait for no one, but in the shifting fortunes of the creative sea Almanac stands as a gleaming, solid point on the horizon.
[Everyone Sang; February 7, 2011]