This review originally appeared on The Arts Desk.
Every so often, an album comes along that reminds you why you love the medium: not because it’s a simple collection of individual songs, no matter how good they are, but because it’s a carefully curated statement of artistic intent. Taken individually Emily Barker’s clear voice and pretty melodies are pleasant enough, but what sets her fourth album apart is its immerse flow.
It’s there right from the album’s seductive opening notes: Barker, close to unaccompanied, intoning the album’s title and opening words; crooning and cajoling the “dear river” to lead her away from her Australian homeland on her first adventure. It’s there in the scheduling genius that lets simpler songs like “The Leaving” and “Sleeping Horses” pick up the slack after the lusher, more complex arrangements of “Letters” and “Everywhen”, and it’s there in the album’s sweet closing serenade to that same Blackwood River.
Of course there is a reason that the work is not presented simply as a solo one. The Red Clay Halo’s arrangements fill songs like “Letters” with grandeur, majesty and rich harmonies; turn “Tuesday” into a slice of string-laden, frantic Americana – with a political conscience, assuming you can pull yourself from its insistent melody to listen to the lyrics – and make “Everywhen” into the album’s big rocker centrepiece. Lyrically, the album explores the theme of home – what it means to leave, what it means to come back, and, on the second half in particular, what it means to be forced out. Barker’s harmonica and Gill Sandell’s accordion combine to give “Ghost Narrative” a haunted, mythic feel, while the sparse arrangement and jarring rhythm of “A Spadeful of Ground” belie the violence of lyrics that set out some of the more shameful parts of Australia’s history.
Barker’s work is likely not unfamiliar to theartsdesk readers: she performed adaptations of her songs as the themes to Wallander and The Shadow Line, and the band appeared with Frank Turner during the Olympics opening ceremony. On the strength of Dear River, her name deserves to become just as familiar.
GIG OF THE WEEK: Glasgow is, as is traditional, super-quiet in the run-up to a certain music festival this weekend. If that isn’t factored into your plans though (some of us are working), Fiona Soe Pang’s set at Kill Yr Idols at the Berkeley Suite on Saturday night is my pick. Tickets are £4 in advance STBF.
All being well, there will be an interview with Fiona on the blog this week – but then, I said that about Adam Stafford last week, so hopefully you know better than to hold me to anything.