Saturday, March 25, 2023

CD Odyssey Disc 1629: Emily Barker

Greetings, gentle readers. My apologies for the lateness of this review – a combination of my having to travel for work, and a need to grok this record in its fullness before putting pen to paper.

Disc 1629 is…Photos.Fires.Fables

Artist: Emily Barker

Year of Release: 2006

What’s up with the Cover?  Does this qualify as a Giant Head cover? On “face” value, it is definitively a giant head – in this a sad girl clutching a crow – but it isn’t a portrait, it’s a watercolour painting.

I’ll say that this is a giant head cover, thus clarifying forever more in common law that a Giant Head doesn’t have to be the artist, nor does it have to be a photo. It just has to be a head, and that head has to be giant.

How I Came To Know It: Originally through Barker’s collaborative work on “Applewood Road”. This album was part of a glut of five records I ordered on Bandcamp direct from the artist about four years ago. The others were all quickly picked off from the “new” section in a four month span shortly after I bought them. Somehow “Photos.Fires.Fables” slipped through to the main stacks where it has patiently waited for my critical attention. And here we are!

How It Stacks Up: I now have six Emily Barker albums, all of which are solid. “Photos.Fires.Fables” only manages to land in fifth place, but as you will read, it is an honourable fifth. This completes my Emily Barker collection, and so as tradition dictates, here’s a recap.

  1. The Toerag Sessions: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 1290)
  2. Dear River: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 1282)
  3. A Dark Murmuration of Words: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 1429)
  4. Despite the Snow: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 1262)
  5. Photos.Fires.Fables: 3 stars (reviewed right here)
  6. Almanac: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 1276)

Rating: 3 stars

Emily Barker’s debut record has a quiet moodiness about it. Later in her career she’ll blow this style into a full haunting but on “Photos.Fires.Fables” she’s content with a gentle summer rain of sadness, punctuated by muted sadness and an occasional murder.

If you don’t know or remember Barker (it’s been a while, gentle reader) she is a contemporary folk artist who sings and plays acoustic guitar, with both possessing a and a delightful birdlike trill.

Future iterations of Barker’s sound have added production, or changed up the way she arranges her thoughtful introspective songs, but on “Fables.Fires.Fables” you get the pure stuff. Absent on any extra paint around the edges, and much more in line with the stark watercolour on the album’s cover.

The record opens with its best track. “This is How It’s Meant To Be” a character study of someone who can’t find their light. Barker’s narrator plays the role of someone trying to carry them forward, essentially following the logic of Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” that there is a crack in everything and that’s how the light gets in. The song does not have “Anthem”s quiet resolve of hope, however, and focuses on how sometimes people who are lost just stay lost. It is sad to its core, but no less beautiful for its failure to find answers.

The record is understated and subtle throughout, and I found I needed three or four listens before it had fully worked its way into my soul. I was glad I spent the extra time, as it was worth the investment of time. Nevertheless, there were times when I wanted the songs to jump out at me more.

This was never more so than on “Fields of June”, a gender swap of the traditional murder ballad where it is the woman who decides she’s done with her lover and resolves to murder him and bury him in a field. The song is a duet, and I’d first heard it sung in a 2012 remake featuring CD Odyssey regular and favourite, Frank Turner. On the album original we get Steven J. Adams, and while it is OK, he’s no Frank Turner. Careful readers will thus not find mention of the tune below in my list of favourites.

That’s OK, as “Fables…” is less a collection of singles, and more a single mood piece, and the record should be approached that way. It requires a contemplative soul and a willingness to sit down, invest some time, and let it soak in slowly.

I loved it and having been separated by a few years of exposure to Barker’s greatness, I resolved to place it first among equals. When I revisited her other work however, I couldn’t bring myself to lower their estimation to fit it in. While it may land low on a comparative analysis as a result, it has an overall greatness that is undeniable.

Best tracks: This is How It’s Meant to Be, Blackbird, Home, If Love Could Save, Reason for the Rain

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