Wednesday, July 3, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1276: Emily Barker and the Red Clay Halo

I’m in the middle of an international journey through folk music. We started in the USA with Mandolin Orange and then went to Scotland for Capercaillie before landing this week in England!

Disc 1276 is… Almanac
Artist: Emily Barker and the Red Clay Halo

Year of Release: 2011 although mine is a re-issue from 2013.

Checking back I see I mislabeled my last review as 2013 (because of the re-issue) when it should have been 2008. I have since remedied the error.

What’s up with the Cover? A peacock gives his son an affectionate bump on the beak while in the background dandelions resembling ladies in voluminous dresses go to seed. This isn’t a piece of art I would hang on my wall but as an album cover it is quite lovely.

How I Came to Know It: I read a review of Emily Barker’s “Applewood Road” side project. That led me to her albums as Emily Barker (both with and without the Red Clay Halo). A quick stop at her Bandcamp sit and before I knew it five albums showed up at my doorstep. Efficient and personal, with some well-wishes from Emily Barker herself and as an added bonus Jeff Bezos didn’t get any wealthier.

How It Stacks Up:  I have five Emily Barker albums. Of those five, “Almanac” comes in at #5. Hey, someone had to be last.

Ratings: 3 stars

In my last Emily Barker review I remarked on how remarkably American she sounded. Not so on “Almanac” where Barker has much more fully aligned with her English surroundings. Alone, she takes on the lilt of Laura Marling, and when you add in the pretty harmonies of her Red Clay Halo bandmates, more like the Staves. And if you don’t know those bands, then know they’re English. Then go read more of my reviews.

This is music of hedgerows, overgrown gardens and damp chilly pastures full of mist and ghosts. The playing is organic at its core, but the band has an atmospheric swell when they come together that feels lush and dense.

The effect is well executed, but there were times where I wanted to hear other elements. For example, Barker is a gifted songwriter. She authors every song on Almanac, and many of them feel like timeless folk ballads. That’s not easy to accomplish, but these songs feel like they’ve been sung around England since the days of the scop and gleeman.

Selfishly I wanted to hear Barker’s lilting tone at its clearest, preferably with a lot of her acoustic guitar as accompaniment (she is also a gifted player). On both “Dancers” and “Ropes” you get exactly this, with Barker’s sweet voice and some brilliant guitar. Later on in the latter tune there are a lot of other elements and instruments get added in and it detracts a bit from the haunting tale of loss and betrayal. For this reason, I prefer the alternate version provided at the end of the disc, which is a bit crisper in the production. Also, the alternate version changes the chorus’ last line from “Thank you for the good times, damn you for the bad” to “Thank you for the good times, fuck you for the bad.” It feels more real and besides, who doesn’t enjoy a well-placed swear?

My favourite track is “The Witch of Pittenweem” which sounds like exactly the sort of town that a witch should come from. I can’t fully tell if the song is about someone being cursed by a witch or being falsely accused of being one. In any event, it all ends very badly for her amid much dampness, blood and torture.

Overall the album has more of this old-time feel than my last foray into Barker’s work (2008’s “Despite the Snow”) and a welcome spookiness. I liked it when these songs whistled gauntly through my soul, despite wishing at times they were a bit starker in their haunting.

Best tracks: Reckless, Little Deaths, Witch of Pittenween, Ropes (Alternate Version)

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