Music Reviews
Dear River

Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo Dear River

(Linn Records) Buy it from Insound Rating - 8/10

It’s been a strange few years for folk music. For the vast majority of its practitioners, it’s been business as usual, but for a select few, it’s been getting steadily more critically acclaimed throughout the 21st Century. Then, it made a half-hearted bid for the mainstream around half a decade ago (thanks for nothing, Noah & The Whale) before, most bizarrely of all, in a cultural landscape seemingly governed by Skrillex and Deadmau5, tweed-sporting banjo-botherers Mumford & Sons somehow became one of the world’s biggest bands.

Yet just beyond the column inches, the beardy Appalachian mountain folk and the well-educated boys in chinos, more traditional folk is in rude health. Acts like The Unthanks, Bellowhead and Kathryn Williams have a strong cult following, and elder statesmen (and women) like Richard Thompson, Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson remain a going concern. Antipodean singer-songwriter Emily Barker has also seen a rise in popularity, and Dear River is her fourth release with her female multi-instrumental trio, The Red Clay Halo.

Interestingly, Dear River is the first of Barker’s records not to be self-financed and has been released on Linn Records, a label more commonly known for its jazz and classical output, and insistence on high-quality audio quality. In fact, Dear River is effectively Linn’s first “pop” release since The Blue Nile’s Hats back in 1989.

Despite her relative youth, Barker clearly understands and loves the language and idioms of folk, and manages to create an immersive, rewarding album that’s expertly sequenced and impeccably controlled. Lyrically, it touches on themes of nature, the world and the concept of home, unsurprising for someone who grew up in a town in Western Australia with fewer than 3,000 inhabitants. However, it’s the music itself that grabs your attention. It may be the case that you’re listening out for it more than usual due to Linn’s audiophile reputation, but each instrument – each plucked string, each brushed snare, each harmonious vocal – is crystal clear.

The most beautiful instrument of all, though, is Barker’s voice. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than on the haunting Letters – a gorgeous, lilting lament that perfectly captures a deep sadness and longing. The emotions explored on Letters are so weighty that the song slows down and cautiously progresses into each chorus, as if Barker and her band have to steel themselves for what lies ahead.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Tuesday races along on a drum beat reminiscent of the chugging of a steam train, bringing urgency to the track. Elsewhere, Sleeping Horses is delicate and unadorned, thrilling with magical imagery before taking an unexpected melodramatic turn.

The most common (and lazy) criticisms of folk, and especially folk that draws heavily on the British tradition as this does, tend to focus on the real ale drinking, bad jumper wearing, heritage protecting, hey-nonny-nonny clichés. This ignores the nucleus of folk – its storytelling – and does a disservice to its more talented and forward-looking artists. Besides, Dear River never strays near Morris dancing territory. Even on the closer, The Blackwood, with its a cappella, sea shanty beginning, it’s still wonderfully crafted and pays just enough respect to the past.

One or two tracks may be a little on the pedestrian side but, for the most part, Dear River is a marvellous record. It’s so well-paced that you can’t help but imagine Barker must have a thirty year recording career behind her, seeing as she can apparently just create this stuff so effortlessly. It’s the kind of record that leaves no stone unturned and surely, during the playback sessions, a warm swell of pride must have risen from within all those involved. And rightly so.