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Album review: Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker “Nothing Can Bring Back The Hour” (FRUK)

October 1, 2014

Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker - Nothing Can Bring Back The HourJosienne Clarke and Ben Walker’s new album Nothing Can Bring Back The Hour consolidates and develops some of the themes and ideas presented on last year’s critically-acclaimed Fire & Fortune to create a gorgeous and compelling record which sets new standards for contemporary UK folk music.

The album opens with Silverline, former FRUK Song of the Day, a slow ballad about seeking silver linings in the dark clouds of a relationship. The lush string arrangement highlights an area of Ben’s musical direction which has grown and blossomed since the last album, the pizzicato strings and John Parker’s delicate double bass are particular highlights. The short but sweet A Simple Refrain displays another expansion of Josienne and Ben’s musical palette with its introduction of guest vocalist Sam Brookes (The Ballina Whalers) in an achingly lovely duet in which Ben’s fingerstyle acoustic guitar underpins an immaculate string arrangement.

Samantha Whates, who’s worked extensively with Josienne and Ben in the past, provides backing vocals on It Would Not Be A Rose and the blending of her and Josienne’s voices is simply gorgeous against the gentle rise and fall of the strings above Ruairi Glasheen’s soft and steady percussion. Ben’s acoustic guitar solo is outstanding, concise yet expressive and perfectly capturing the mood. The traditional I Wonder What Is Keeping My True Love Tonight, which has its roots in another traditional song, The Green Grass It Grows Bonny, is something of a standard in folk music but Josienne and Ben’s version, just acoustic guitar and voice, brings their own vision to it, creating a spellbinding rendition that will stand the test of time with ease.

The Tangled Tree is another highlight: a truly contemporary piece with a huge and spacious sound yet entirely in keeping with the overall mood of the album. Josienne’s voice shines through the multitracked choir of Samantha’s backing vocals like the sun through the clouds over Jim Moray’s crisp, clear piano and a sensuous double bass – but what really catches my ear are Ben’s reversed electric guitar phrases. It’s a sound not often heard (and rarely done well) but here it’s absolutely stunning, due as much to Ben’s mastery of both the guitar and studio techniques as to the duo’s uncanny knack of finding the right sound at the right time in the right place.

Juxtaposing a lyrical regret with a musical reverie, I Never Learned French tiptoes into the small hours with a beautifully understated vocal by Josienne, around which Nick Malcolm’s muted trumpet dances gracefully to a string arrangement as lush as black velvet. Moving Speeches lifts the tempo with a country-flavoured tune complete with banjo and skittering percussion, although any temptation to break out the cowboy boots and start line-dancing around the living room is thankfully held in check by a well-placed chamber folk string arrangement and some lovely wordless backing vocals from Josienne.

The atmospheric Mainland opens with the ominous growl of strings over which a sequence of wordless vocals moan like mythological sirens before a distant electronic sequence and Ben’s heavily treated guitar appear. Josienne’s emotive vocals are both chilling and filled with sorrow while Ivan Mendola’s drums crash like waves on the rocks in a winter storm. This is the most experimental song on the album and to my mind it’s a resounding success, pointing to a possibly fruitful area of musical exploration in the future.

A brace of traditional songs follow: first up is The Queen Of Hearts which captures the sense of lyrical heartache in a way which is in keeping with the courtly spirit of the original while making the most of contemporary technology, by the simple but highly effective method of overdubbing Josienne’s recorders to create the effect of her accompanying herself. Ben’s crystal acoustic guitar parts and an exquisite string arrangement are the proverbial icing on the cake on a version which, in my opinion, knocks Martin Carthy’s otherwise definitive 1965 version into a cocked hat. The traditional ‘warning song’, Let No Man Steal Your Thyme, continues the contemporary treatment with musical drones and distant, treated percussion like breaking glass. The introduction of a horn section to add punctuation is an inspired idea and the interweaving voices sound almost otherworldly. This, too, is an outstanding cover which – again, in my opinion – knocks spots off Pentangle’s famous 1968 version.

Josienne’s slow ballad Now You Know is enveloped by a sweeping string section over Ben’s immaculate guitar; Josienne and Samantha’s vocals entwine seamlessly as Jim Rattigan’s French horn weaves gently through the background. Earth And Ash And Dust introduces Pete Truin and Jamie Doe – the other two-thirds of The Ballina Whalers – on backing vocals for an almost choral piece underpinned with clever use of treated guitars; if stained glass had a sound, it would be like this. The album draws to a close with the appropriately titled Epilogue: Water To Wine, lyrically a slightly apprehensive look into the crystal ball of an uncertain future, its billowing strings appearing and reappearing over a restrained trio of piano, double bass and percussion to make a fitting conclusion to the record.

In a recent interview with FRUK Josienne said that she and Ben wanted to see if “we could make something that was suitably us but bigger and more vibrant” and there’s no doubt that they’ve exceeded those hopes. Nothing Can Bring Back The Hour is a stunningly good record; its multi-faceted blend of traditional and contemporary material and arrangements, combined with Josienne and Ben’s fearlessness in experimenting with cutting edge techniques and sounds have produced a work of beauty and depth which deserves to be acknowledged as a classic in the canon of contemporary UK folk music.

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Originally posted at Folk Radio UK (01 October 2014)

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